Carlton Caves envisions computers that can immensely simplify the process of developing new drugs or that send messages so protected hackers can never break them.
Those things are actually not that far off because of immense progress in the study of quantum physics, and the University of New Mexico is at the heart of it.
Caves, a distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, and director of UNM’s Center for Quantum Information and Control, said the university is substantially ramping up the research needed to make such new computing technologies, thanks to a five-year, $2.3 million grant the National Science Foundation awarded in September.
The grant will pay for enough newly hired post-doctoral scientists to expand center research by 60 percent. It also converts UNM and its research partner, the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, into one of only two NSF-funded Focused Research Hubs in Theoretical Physics in the country.
In fact, the center is now the only NSF hub focusing specifically on Quantum Information. That’s the science that can pave the way for Cave’s futuristic computers.
“We want to make use of the full power of quantum physics,” Caves said. “We’re developing the framework and doing the experimentation needed to harness it.”
To do that, UNM scientists at Cave’s center, housed in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, are studying and manipulating the tiniest of particles. That’s not just atoms, but some of the stuff that makes up atoms, such as photons, electrons and nuclei.
The research aims to decipher exactly how those tiny elements behave and interact with one another before they come together to create what we see or experience in the real world. With that understanding in hand, plus new tools to manipulate or recreate it, scientists can go beyond today’s technology to make computers and other devices do new and more powerful things.
“We could achieve secure communications over channels available to eavesdroppers with security guaranteed by the laws of physics,” Caves said.
That could solve some of today’s technology challenges, such as changing the way credit cards are encrypted on the internet, said center faculty member Ivan Deutsch, a regents’ professor of physics and astronomy.
“We could create ‘shared secret keys’ through a quantum computing process that’s not available now, but could be in the future,” Deutsch said.
Of course, the devil is in the details, which is what quantum physics is all about. Classical physics focuses on the things all 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.
It’s not just a different language. Atomic particles have different capabilities to do things humans don’t see once those masses of atomic elements come together.
Unlike linear movement of particles in classical physics, for example, at the atomic and subatomic level, matter can go from one spot to another without moving through the intervening space, something called “quantum tunneling.” Information can move instantly across vast distances.
That unique behavior at the atomic, or quantum, level makes the microscopic world seem strange, paradoxical or counter-intuitive.
“In the last 25 years, we’ve come to realize that those paradoxical aspects can maybe open new doors,” Caves said. “If we can harness how they work, we could use them for processing information in new and more powerful ways. And that’s what quantum science is all about, to harness the way the world works at the microscopic level, allowing us to create things like powerful supercomputers, share unbreakable secrets, or sense very tiny things.”
Apart from far faster computer processing, harnessing the atomic world could allow computers to be built with self-correcting physics to eliminate errors, simulate the processes needed to create new drugs instead of relying on trial and error, or create new materials that are much more robust with fewer defects.
“That’s what’s so exciting to us, and for students and junior scientists,” Deutsch said. “It has the potential for creating disruptive technologies that can change the world.”
Through the Center for Quantum Information and Control, UNM and the University of Arizona work together to articulate the theory of quantum physics, and test and validate it through high-tech experimentation. The center works closely with scientists from Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
At UNM, scientists are using laser cooling techniques to freeze and isolate atoms, as well as groups of atomic particles called “entanglements.” Experimental physicist Francisco Elohim Becerra, for example, is working on that as the basis of “quantum memory,” or how to store memory in its original “quantum state.”
“That’s done with ultra-cold atoms, or atoms at near-zero temperature,” Deutsch said. “When they get that cold, we can trap them and hold onto them, which could allow us to make atoms into ‘quantum objects’ that we can manipulate.”
That type of work, however, is hindered today by the 65-year-old building on the north side of campus near UNM Hospital that currently houses the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Apart from being cramped in aging and ill-equipped laboratories, high-tech research like freezing atoms is often hampered by dust, noise-generated vibrations, poor temperature controls and bad plumbing.
“It’s hard to insulate experiments from all the interference,” Deutsch said.
UNM is planning a new, $66 million building on the south side of campus near Central Avenue and Yale Boulevard. The 137,000-square-foot building would house classrooms, offices and laboratory space for scientists from many departments, said Wolfgang Rudolph, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
It would include six UNM research centers that are now scattered across campus, such as the centers for bioinformatics and genomics, geo-spatial data analysis and electron microscopy. Apart from modern labs and equipment, UNM is hoping such collaborative work spaces will encourage more interdisciplinary cooperation, leading to the kinds of human “collisions” that produce new, cutting-edge innovation.
If approved by voters on Nov. 8, about $28 million in general obligation bonds will help finance the new center’s construction.