/Illinois is funding quantum physics research (via Qpute.com)
Illinois is funding quantum physics research

Illinois is funding quantum physics research (via Qpute.com)

Some of the finest minds in the state recently explained to me the importance of a mostly unnoticed line in the state of Illinois’ new capital projects plan.

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, Argonne National Laboratory Director Paul Kearns and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Provost Andreas Cangellaris touted new state government funding for a program that could be “even bigger than supercomputing” (Zimmer) and a “paradigm shift” in technology (Cangellaris).

What is this marvel? Quantum physics. It’s the study of subatomic particles that don’t behave in the way we understand “normal” physics. The particles do things like exist in two places simultaneously, move through what we would consider solid objects and change their form when observed. Google it. It’ll blow your mind.

The idea is to try to harness these tiny particles to do stuff like create vastly improved computing systems or design totally new types of pharmaceuticals or unbreakable encryption.

In 2017, the University of Chicago invested $100 million and partnered with Argonne and Fermilab on a project called the Chicago Quantum Exchange.

While the University of Illinois may be better known for its supercomputing and internet breakthroughs, which led to pretty much everything digital that we take for granted today, the institution has been studying quantum physics since the early 1950s. It joined the exchange in October.

President Donald Trump signed a bill in December providing over a billion dollars for quantum research. The military is especially concerned about China, which successfully conducted a quantum encryption experiment and is reportedly spending billions on the technology.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been involved with high-tech development for years in the private sector, and he says he’s familiar with quantum physics. He also knew about U of C’s $100 million investment and its search for more partners. So he decided to commit $100 million from his $45 billion infrastructure bill to the U of I in hopes of not only bringing some of the best minds in the world to Illinois, but also possibly creating an economic boom along the lines of Silicon Valley, the Boston area’s Biomedical Corridor and Boulder, Colo.’s gigantic data storage industry.

“If you catch the wave of a technology as it’s being commercialized, there is really endless opportunity,” Pritzker tells me.

The Illinois investment, U of I’s Cangellaris says, will be used to construct a “state-of-the-art facility.” He compares the new grant to state funding for the university’s supercomputing program, which he says helped it win crucial federal dollars. Without that state cash, the resulting technological revolution may not have happened here.

“Illinois has been giving a lot of its invention and talents to the rest of the world,” Cangellaris says of the legions of our home-grown tech scientists and entrepreneurs who’ve left for California and other places. “It’s about time that Illinois benefits directly.”

And those benefits could be phenomenal, says U of C’s Zimmer. “Imagine you have typewriters and other people have digital computers. How competitive are you? It’s the same with computers and quantum computers.”

Everyone agrees that collaboration is key with a project this gigantic. Argonne’s Kearns points to his materials science laboratory’s capabilities. Fermilab is involved with a quantum tunnel project that extends from its facility to South Dakota.

U of C is not only heavily involved with research, it’s also connecting the project with its Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation to bring in private interests.

It’s possible that nothing could come of this for decades. But, Zimmer says, “this is a classic example of needing to invest upfront to ensure that you’re competitive for the long run.”

Crain’s contributor Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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