The existence of a secretive expression of interest process for the federal government to purchase a quantum computer has been confirmed for the first time, with revelations more than 20 companies were approached as part of this “exploration process”.

Department of Industry, Science and Resources officials fronted Senate Estimates on Thursday and were asked about the secretive quantum procurement process, which was first revealed by Information Age in November last year.

The department officials confirmed the Expression of Interest (EOI) was issued in August last year to “explore the maturity of the market around quantum computing”.

“We surveyed the market in terms of who we sought information from and we went out to 21 domestic and international companies as part of the exploration process,” Department of Science, Industry and Resources secretary Meghan Quinn told the Estimates hearing.

US-based firm PsiQuantum is rumoured to be the frontrunner in this EOI process to supply a quantum computer to the government.

But the department officials declined to reveal whether PsiQuantum was one of the companies that responded to the EOI, or how many of the 21 respondents were local companies.

The officials did however confirm that there were meetings between the department and PsiQuantum at “various levels” last year, including during Industry Minister Ed Husic’s visit to the US.

It has also been revealed that PsiQuantum met with former Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in August last year, the same month the EOI was issued, and participated in a Queensland quantum advisory meeting late last year.

The quantum EOI process has been shrouded in secrecy, with the federal government keeping its spending on quantum hidden in the recent MYEFO update.

The MYEFO included a line item for the “National Quantum Strategy - Implementation” in 2023-24 to the Department of Finance and Department of Industry, Science and Resources, but this figure was listed as being “not for publication” due to “commercial sensitivities”.

A Freedom of Information request by the Opposition for correspondence between Husic and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about quantum computers or PsiQuantum has also been rejected.

Just months before the EOI was secretly issued, the federal government unveiled Australia’s first National Quantum Strategy.

The strategy had a focus on research and development, supply chain, workforce, standards, and equality, but included no mention of the government purchasing a quantum computer.

In the strategy, the federal government did propose building the “world’s first error-corrected quantum computer in Australia”.

The quantum EOI has led to concerns about a perceived lack of transparency and the government favouring a US company over its wealth of local quantum companies.

One industry source told Information Age late last year that they were concerned there was no open tender process, and that they would have liked an opportunity to form a consortium of Australian companies to apply for it.

University of Technology Sydney senior lecturer Simon Devitt said purchasing an as-yet-unproven technology would be a “ludicrous waste of money” that could be better spent on local academic research on the matter.

“These systems are often extremely expensive and their value is questionable at the very least,” Devitt said in November last year.

“They do not provide any kind of commercial utility for high-performance computing, and the utility for developing quantum algorithms or in education is essentially non-existent.”

The federal government is also looking for a group of industry and academic partners to operate the Australian Centre for Quantum Growth with $18.5 million in grants.

The centre is expected to open no later than 31 March 2027.