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By Mitch Ambrose
The US Department of Energy (DOE) and National Science Foundation (NSF) established an array of research centers this summer focused on complementary facets of quantum information science (QIS), fulfilling a centerpiece of the National Quantum Initiative Act. Enacted in late 2018, the law reflects the view that concentrations of multidisciplinary teams are needed to accelerate development of sensors, computers, and communication methods that capitalize on the subtle quantum behaviors of matter at the atomic scale.
DOE announced in August it is funding five QIS centers at $115 million each over five years. Each is led by a DOE national lab and together have attracted participation from dozens of universities and companies, which have committed an additional $340 million in total.
Over the same period, NSF’s Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes program is splitting $75 million evenly across three centers led by the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of California, Berkeley. NSF also is awarding $26 million over five years through its Engineering Research Centers program to establish a Center for Quantum Networks at the University of Arizona.
One of the DOE centers, Q-NEXT, led by Argonne National Lab in Illinois, will establish two “national foundries” for standardized quantum materials and devices in partnership with SLAC National Accelerator Lab in California. In an interview, Q-NEXT Director David Awschalom said the national labs are a natural place to host such capabilities.
“You need exquisite characterization techniques to know your materials are pristine, because we're talking about building an atom-scale technology. You need synchrotrons to do atomic scale imaging and look at electronic structure. You might need massive computational facilities to calculate the electronic band structure for a particular design,” Awschalom said. “The national labs in the US are often the stewards of these technologies.”
Another focus of Q-NEXT is to create quantum communication links, which have unique security advantages and could be used to create networks of quantum sensors and computers. Argonne has already established a 52-mile quantum link with the University of Chicago using an existing fiber optic cable, with plans to connect to nearby Fermilab next year. But longer terrestrial links will require an as-yet uninvented device known as a quantum repeater to boost the signal along the way.
DOE announced this summer it plans to eventually connect all 17 of its national laboratories as nodes in a national “quantum internet.” University of Oregon physicist Michael Raymer, who is a part of NSF’s Center for Quantum Networks, said in an interview that connecting the DOE labs is a daunting task, estimating it will take at least 20 years, but he expects the initiative will benefit from the collective efforts of the new QIS centers.
“There's the theoretical protocol layer. There's the building of the fiber infrastructure, assuming you have a repeater, then there's actually building a repeater. And then the other end of it is what do you connect to the internet,” Raymer said. “I think the community has decided to work on all these layers in parallel [because] these are hard problems. … That's really what these centers are all about.”
Raymer was among a small group of scientists that conceived of the idea to appeal to Congress for the centers through an advocacy coalition called the National Photonics Initiative, which was established in 2013 to support efforts that use optics and photonics as enabling technologies. “The main selling point that we all came up with was that individual researchers—whether they be in universities or in industry or even government labs—in small teams are not capable of creating quantum technology. It's too complicated,” he said.
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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