• The NSF’s Quantum Leap initiative includes a number of programs aimed at advancing the quantum technology research and helping the United States maintain a competitive edge over other nations.  Nicolle R. Fuller/ NSF
     The NSF’s Quantum Leap initiative includes a number of programs aimed at advancing the quantum technology research and helping the United States maintain a competitive edge over other nations. Nicolle R. Fuller/ NSF

National Science Foundation Pushes the Quantum Edge

July 1, 2019
By George I. Seffers
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Forthcoming technology institutes could help define the future of science.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing in a number of research institutes designed to advance quantum technologies in four broad areas: computation, communication, sensing and simulation. The institutes will foster multidisciplinary approaches to specific scientific, technological, educational, and workforce development goals in quantum technology, which could revolutionize computer and information systems.

The Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes program will support research centers based at universities or eligible nonprofit organizations to foster major breakthroughs in critical areas at the intellectual and technological frontiers of quantum information science and engineering using a multidisciplinary approach. “The eventual goal is to develop and support Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes—broad, center-like activities for a five-year program to establish critical research capabilities,” explains Filbert Bartoli, the director for NSF’s Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems division.

Preliminary proposals are due August 1. The deadline for full proposals is January 2, 2020, and awards are expected later next year.

The effort is part of a larger NSF program known as Quantum Leap, which seeks to develop next-generation technologies by exploiting quantum mechanics to observe, manipulate and control the behavior of particles and energy at atomic and subatomic scales. On its website, the NSF explains that many of today’s technologies, including lasers, computers, the Global Positioning System and light-emitting diodes, rely on the interaction of matter and energy at extremely small and discrete dimensions. By exploiting interactions of these quantum systems, next-generation technologies will be more accurate and efficient. “To reach these capabilities, researchers need understanding of quantum mechanics to observe, manipulate and control the behavior of particles and energy at dimensions at least a million times smaller than the width of a human hair,” the website adds.

The Quantum Leap effort also includes a program known as Enabling Quantum Leap: Convergent Accelerated Discovery Foundries for Quantum Materials Science, Engineering and Information (Q-AMASE-i). The goal is to establish foundries with midscale infrastructure for rapid prototyping and development of quantum materials, devices, tools and methods to be shared with the science and engineering communities through a foundry-operated network. The program will help to build “the infrastructure that will allow quantum systems to evolve and progress,” Bartoli says.

Another program, the Quantum Idea Incubator for Transformational Advances in Quantum Systems, focuses on several areas of interest, including physics, chemistry, materials science, mathematics, biology or geoscience, quantum information science and engineering, communication, computation, modeling, and devices and engineered systems. “To solve a really big quantum system problem, like developing a quantum Internet or coast-to-coast secure communications, it’s going to involve a lot of areas of science and engineering. It’s going to involve interdisciplinary teams. We view this as a team-building exercise to do some important scientific research,” Bartoli states.

Two of the major challenges for quantum scientists revolve around entanglement and coherence. “In order for this to work for communications and computing and probably sensing networks, one of the things that’s really important is that you be able to maintain coherence in systems and maintain entanglement. These are two concepts that are really very fundamental to the future success of quantum systems,” Bartoli says.

Entanglement is a mind-boggling phenomenon that Albert Einstein described as “spooky action at a distance.” When two quantum bits are entangled, anything that happens to one affects the other no matter how far apart they are. It is as if one twin breaks an arm and the other twin, though continents away, simultaneously experiences the same pain.

Coherence involves a similar phenomenon in waves. The term can refer to two waves with properties, such as frequency and wavelength, that are perfectly aligned. It also can refer to a single wave that has not yet experienced any interference to its resonant properties. “If you think of the state of an atom being a sine wave, it’s a question of how long that sine wave will last before there’s an interruption in the phase, before there’s a discontinuous break in it. That would be the coherence time,” Bartoli explains in layman terms. “A very simple way of thinking about it is a sine wave that doesn’t have any discontinuous breaks in its phase.”

Increasing that coherence time is critical for quantum technologies, he indicates. “If you are trying to communicate between widely separated cities by sending a signal that relies on coherence, it will take a certain amount of time for the signal to be sensed and acted upon. You will have to maintain coherence during this entire time in order to do quantum communication.”

Bartoli says it is difficult to predict the changes quantum technologies will foster. He recalls that the first supercomputer took up “an entire floor of a building” and had to be cryogenically cooled. He also points out that the first cellphone was the size of a cigar box with batteries that would quickly lose power. Now, cellphones have more computing power than those first supercomputers.

“We are witnessing potentially the birth of a new capability like that, but we are in its early stages. We have a hard time imagining the impact it will have, but you certainly could imagine that a change of that same magnitude will occur,” he says. “We just have to wait and maybe even wonder at the capabilities of science and engineering to really solve these problems. If the past in computing and in wireless technology are any indication, there should be wonders we can’t yet imagine before us in the next half-century.”

He suggests quantum capabilities could foster a quantum-based Internet of Things with a massive distribution of mobile devices that are not necessarily cellphones. “In some cases, these may be on autonomous vehicles moving at high rates of speed. We need to increase the speed and security and the energy efficiency of microelectronics that can serve for intercommunications for these types of vehicles or nodes,” he adds.

The NSF has invested in quantum technology research for decades, but Bartoli reveals the recent focus aligns closely with legislation known as the National Quantum Initiative Act, which passed in December and authorized $1.275 billion to promote research and development across a variety of departments and agencies. “As part of this, NSF is supposed to have up to five centers on quantum information science and engineering, and they could be very large centers—$5 million to $10 million per year each. The NSF is actually underway with the process and moving forward.”

The investment also comes as nations around the world compete for an edge in quantum technologies. In a report published in January, Research and Markets, a market research firm, estimated that the global investment in quantum capabilities will reach $13 billion by 2020. The report points out that quantum sensing, for example, could lead to significant healthcare advances, such as more effective imaging of internal organs, while also making stealth aircraft easy to locate.

Quantum encryption is seen as being far more secure, and quantum computers will make current encryption technologies about as effective as using “password” for a password. Such a breakthrough by a competing nation would threaten security across all critical sectors, including defense, finance, banking and healthcare. “A lot of that is based on being able to generate factors, factoring large numbers. If you suddenly had a quantum computer, it’s possible it would be able to do that factorization and break those encryption codes, making what you thought was secure communications no longer secure.”

China has made dramatic progress in recent years, announcing in 2017 that physicists had used the Micius satellite to relay quantum encrypted data from China to Australia, a distance of 4700 miles. The same year, China initiated the Institute of Quantum Information and Quantum Technology Innovation. “Quantum is an area that has a large payoff if, in fact, you are able to demonstrate successful systems. It seems to me an area it would be perilous for us not to maintain leadership in,” Bartoli stresses.

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