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Oppenheimer: Quantum technology, patents and the silver screen

Oppenheimer: Quantum technology, patents and the silver screen

News 16/08/2023

In this article, Secerna Patent Attorney, Jonathan Roberts, delves into the intricacies of Christopher Nolan's masterpiece "Oppenheimer" and its intriguing connections to the realm of patents.

When I was researching practical applications of devices exhibiting quantum mechanical phenomena during my PhD, I never imagined that the silver screen would take quantum mechanics and put it squarely at the forefront of a story. However, that is exactly what happened in Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated epic – Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer focusses on the life of the theoretical physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and particularly his involvement during the development of the atomic bomb as director of the Manhattan Project and also on the questions surrounding his credibility due to alleged communist ties following the end of World War II. I felt the film was an excellent portrayal of the ethical dilemmas and political challenges faced by this genius theoretical physicist due to the unprecedented circumstances he found himself in during wartime. As a physicist with a background in quantum physics, it was also great to see some of the great minds of the early 20th century, such as Einstein, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Bohr, and Heisenberg, brought to life.

As a patent attorney, the film also got me thinking – given Oppenheimer’s apparent creativity, was Oppenheimer a prolific inventor?

It may come as a surprise that he is only named as an inventor on a single published US patent - US2719924A. This patent relates to improvements in the electromagnetic separation of ionized particles of different masses in a device referred to as a Calutron (this is the device that Ernest Lawrence is depicted as developing in the movie). However, that is not the end of the story. During the Manhattan Project, it is said that there were thousands of patent applications filed in the name of the US Government relating to all aspects of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer will have no doubt been named as an inventor on many of these applications. For good reasons, the US Government has not published these applications and may never do so. Thus, we may never know how prolific Oppenheimer was as an inventor.

That being said, it is hard to deny Oppenheimer’s very significant contribution to the development of quantum theory, with his key contributions relating to work on quantum tunnelling, the Born-Oppenheimer approximation and the Oppenheimer-Phillips process. This early theoretical work is crucial to the nascent quantum technologies that are on the horizon today. For example, would Richard Feynman and David Deutsch have proposed and developed the concept of quantum computing when they did without the theoretical groundwork that had previously been laid by Oppenheimer and others? We cannot be certain.

What is certain is that we are now heading to an age where quantum technologies will no doubt play a prevalent role. Quantum computers may enable currently unfeasible simulations and calculations to be performed with ease by making use of collections of qubits. Quantum sensors may take advantage of the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to allow ultra-precise measurements to be made. Quantum cryptography may provide a mechanism to maintain secure communications in a post-quantum world by reliance on the no-cloning theorem. I’m sure Oppenheimer himself would be astounded.

To have a competitive edge in this quantum future, all quantum technology-based businesses should give serious consideration to obtaining protection for their intellectual assets. Due to our expertise in quantum technology and intellectual property, we are perfectly placed to assist with navigating such businesses wishing to protect their IP assets around pitfalls that can arise due to the underlying complexity of quantum technology.

If you would like further information regarding IP protection for quantum technology, please contact Jonathan Roberts at