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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / June 

Physics researchers bring in federal funding to boost quantum science and technology research

June 13, 2018

Sophia Economou and Edwin Barnes, of Physics

Sophia Economou and Edwin Barnes
Sophia Economou and Edwin Barnes of the Department of Physics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Researchers in the Department of Physics are building a major program in quantum information sciences thanks in part to multiple federal grants that have brought $3.7 million directly to Virginia Tech.

Among the most recent federal agency grants is a $460,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research with the goal of developing techniques to control physical quantum systems, such as atoms, circuits, and molecules. This builds on other funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Army Research Office, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Leading the research projects are Sophia Economou, an associate professor, and Edwin Barnes, an assistant professor, both from the Department of Physics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science

Their research spans a range of quantum information science and emerging quantum technologies, including computing, communication, and simulation, and involves fellow faculty at Virginia Tech, along with graduate, undergraduate, and postdoctoral researchers.

“Quantum science and technology could have far-reaching impact in science, technology, communications, and computing,” Barnes said. “For example, future powerful quantum computers will be able to solve certain types of problems that are beyond the reach of existing supercomputers, which will have uses in the fields of chemistry and medicine, machine learning, and cryptography.”

Competition to make quantum computing a reality is fierce among such nations as the United States, Japan, China, Germany, and England, and companies, including IBM, Intel, and Google.

“Research geared toward the understanding, design, and control of physical systems that will be used as quantum bits is crucial,” said Mark Pitt, head of the Department of Physics. “Professors Economou and Barnes have developed a research program that includes the investigation of various quantum technologies.”

Systems under investigation by Economou and Barnes for quantum computing range from well-established candidates, such as superconducting circuits developed by IBM and Google; to spin quantum bits in silicon, an approach taken by Intel; to more exploratory systems, such as single-molecule magnets.

A $1.8 million Department of Energy-funded grant on molecular magnet quantum bits is led by Barnes as the primary investigator, with support work from Economou, Assistant Professor Nick Mayhall of the Department of Chemistry, and Associate Professor Kyungwha Park of Physics. Meanwhile, a multi-university NSF grant worth $2 million headed by Economou partnering with researchers from multiple universities focuses on the distribution of exotic highly correlated, or entangled, photon states.

The $3.7 million coming to Virginia Tech is only a portion of the funds from projects led by Economou and Barnes. In all, $6.5 million is going to Virginia Tech and its research partners at the University of Minnesota, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Washington, among others.

Quantum information science is highly interdisciplinary, Economou 
said. Theoretical chemists hope to use quantum processors to solve complex problems involving strongly correlated molecules, such as those relevant for laboratory tests and photosynthesis. Computer scientists are working on algorithms tailored specifically to quantum computers. Engineers are crucial in developing quantum-computing devices and networks. Lastly, materials scientists are needed to develop pristine materials that can abide the fragility of quantum computers to their environment.

This past fall, Economou and Barnes led the NSF-funded workshop Quantum Leap: Workshop on Quantum Elements of Secure Communication, focusing on convergent research in quantum information, which scientists say could provide communications a revolutionary boost in security and privacy.

The workshop was part of a larger effort, called Growing Convergent Research, that addresses five of the federal agency’s 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments. They also are leading one of the NSF’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation programs.

“It is exciting to design quantum control techniques that our experimental collaborators go on to demonstrate in the lab,” Economou said. “We not only get to see our theoretical predictions come to life, but also know that they could have an impact on groundbreaking future technologies.”

Related stories:

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Physics researchers hosting NSF-funded workshop on quantum information, future of communications security