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DOE awards $8M grant for quantum research

SANTA FE, N.M. — A lot more public and private money is funding quantum mechanics research in New Mexico and elsewhere that could revolutionize today’s sensing and computing technologies.

A new $8 million Department of Energy grant will allow Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories to advance techniques and tools to manipulate atomic particles in ways that will allow researchers and industry to eventually build bio and chemical sensors that are far more powerful than today’s devices.

That work, and similar types of research funded by other federal entities at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Quantum Information and Control and the Center for High Technology Materials, could also help harness the quantum mechanics needed to enable quantum computing – considered the basis of the next revolution in information technology.

Researchers have been studying the possibilities of controlling and re-creating what happens in the natural world at the atomic and subatomic levels since the 1980s. But in recent years, as technologies that allow scientists to see and manipulate things at the nanoscale have progressed, the ability to harness quantum mechanics to do the things we want them to do has greatly accelerated.

And that, in turn, is opening the financial floodgates to much more advanced research, converting New Mexico into one of the world’s premier hubs for quantum information science.

“The jury is still out in terms of how far along we are in all this research and where it will lead us,” said UNM physics professor Victor Acosta. “But there has been an explosion, or inflection point, in the last five years that has convinced researchers and private companies that quantum computing, sensing and other things will become a likely reality in our lifetime. It’s no longer just a physicist’s game, but computer scientists, physicists and mathematicians getting together to figure out the advantages of these things over today’s technologies.”

Quantum physics research is all about studying and manipulating the tiniest of particles, not just atoms, but some of the stuff that makes up matter, such as photons and electrons.

Classical physics focuses on the things those atoms do in the real world when they come together. Quantum physics looks at how the individual atomic elements operate and communicate with one another.

Now, Sandia and LANL scientists are building the tools to not just decipher and map the details of those atomic processes, but actually manipulate them and eventually recreate them.

That’s the work the new DOE grant will fund over the next three years at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, or CINT, a facility jointly operated by both labs.

Through CINT and Sandia’s Ion Beam Laboratory, scientists are working on new techniques to place single atoms where they want them and control how they interact with everything around them. That allows scientists to use individual atoms and particles to perform quantum sensing, basically using electrons to learn about things at the nanoscale, said CINT physicist Michael Lilly.

Under the DOE grant, Lilly is working to design and build a quantum-based nuclear magnetic resonance instrument, a device sensitive enough to read information from individual atoms. In the real world, that could potentially revolutionize technologies like magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

“It would be orders of magnitude more sensitive than traditional technologies,” Lilly said.

To place atomic particles where scientists want them, LANL scientist Han Htoon is working with Ed Bielejec, manager of Sandia’s Ion Beam Lab, a facility that uses ion and electron accelerators to study and modify materials and devices. They will develop a method to fire an atomic particle at material to literally knock one atom out of place as the implanted particle comes to a dead stop in the same space to replace the original atom.

That could create the foundational tools needed not just to learn more about the atomic elements and interactions in materials, but eventually recreate, or fabricate them, Bielejec said.

The DOE says such tools could help generate a multitude of new, exotic materials with unprecedented properties, in turn contributing to the development of new technologies. The agency announced plans last May to invest $30 million in such research over the next three years at CINT and other DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers.

At UNM’s Center for High Technology Materials, Acosta is conducting similar research in partnership with a California startup, ODMR Technologies, to create a new quantum sensing device. That research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

“At my lab, we’ve been working on that with applications in chemistry and biology that could help build machines that look at individual cells or molecules,” Acosta said. “We’re working with a startup company that’s trying to commercialize quantum sensing technology. There’s probably a dozen startups and larger companies that are now focused on that research for various applications.”

Acosta’s goal is to create a sensor that could be put on top of a bio sample, such as a cell culture or urine, and decipher its composition at the atomic level, he said.

UNM’s Center for Quantum Information and Control, meanwhile, which works closely with Sandia and LANL on research projects, is part of a $15 million National Science Foundation initiative to demonstrate the advantage of quantum computing over traditional computing. It’s the largest such NSF effort to date in quantum computing, something big companies like IBM, Microsoft, Intel and others are now investing heavily in because they could potentially make information processing and computing exponentially faster and more efficient than today’s computer technologies.

That’s because atomic elements hold much more information than the digital “bits” used in classical computers. In a quantum computer, the basic units of information – called quantum bits, or “qubits” – can together perform many computations simultaneously, which theoretically allows the quantum computer to solve difficult problems much faster than a classical computer.

Global research and professional services firm Accenture Labs estimates that public and private entities invested about $1 billion in 2016 in quantum computing initiatives, although consistent industry use of such technologies is still about two to five years out.

“We don’t yet know what the impact of all this research will be on computing,” Acosta said. “But we hope that quantum computing will be able to do many things that’s simply not possible today with classical computers.”

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