The local scientists will capture and manipulate tiny particles, one possible step in building a quantum computer
Fantastically small particles will drive the computer brains of the future, and University of Oregon scientists soon will be learning to catch and control them.
The university’s decades-old reputation in the study of quantum physics will be furthered next year by a new laboratory where those whizzing particles can be captured and studied, giving local scientists a place in the hunt for the next big breakthrough in computing.
UO scientists currently are tearing out space in the basement of Willamette Hall, home of the physics department, to build a lab that will make it possible to do in miniature the same kind of research done by global companies racing to build the first true quantum computers. And because of research to be done in that lab, those companies may one day be relying on UO grads.
“It’s gone from a small field to growing very rapidly, and they just can’t hire Ph.D. students fast enough,” said David Allcock, who recently arrived at UO to run the lab where the new machines — called ion traps — will be installed.
A computer’s thinking power comes down to processing 1s and 0s. Quantum computers promise to outstrip all modern computers in this way.
Classical computers process information in bits, which represent either 1 or 0. Quantum bits — or “qubits” — can represent simultaneously 1 and 0, which allows a quantum computer to process information more efficiently and perform more complex computations.
“They can encode more complicated states,” Allcock said. “You’re playing the game by a different set of rules — the rules of quantum mechanics.”
A defining rule of quantum mechanics is superposition, the head-scratching theory that a particle can be in more than one state at one time. Ions are one type of particle affected by this strange quantum mechanical law, and ions can be made into qubits.
Allcock’s ion traps are designed to freeze handfuls of particles so UO physicists can study those ions and how to manipulate them.
“You’re trying to store information in them … and, when the information is in them, do computations,” he said.
The few quantum computers that exist today don’t outperform classic computers because they cannot precisely control enough qubits.
“It’s really easy to mess up a quantum system,” said Daniel Moore, a UO graduate student working under Allcock.
A quantum system is incredibly sensitive because anything that touches an atomic particle will change its state, Moore said. Securing one in an ion trap makes it possible to manage them, he said.
“Ion traps let you have really good control over a quantum system,” Moore said.
David Wineland was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics for his part in pioneering the ion capture technique. In 2017, Wineland joined the faculty at UO after he left the University of Colorado Boulder where he oversaw ion capture projects on a team that included Allcock. Allcock followed soon after.
They didn’t both land in Eugene by accident.
“Nationally and internationally, Oregon is known as one of the strongest groups in quantum optics,” said UO physics professor Michael Raymer.
Quantum optics is a subset of the science focused on light, which is subject to quantum mechanics, Raymer said. His team at UO in 1994 was the first to show it’s possible to measure the quantum wave function of a state of light, which is used to predict how likely is a certain behavior for that light.
Raymer joined the UO faculty in 1988 and in 1994 served as the first director of the university’s Oregon Center for Optics, now called the Center for Optical, Molecular and Quantum Science. He said it was about that time interest in the practical applications of entanglement-based quantum science started taking off.
“In the early half of my career, which now spans 40 years, we were doing experiments just because we want to know,” Raymer said. “We did many experiments in fundamental quantum optics to understand how light is generated by atoms, how it travels through different materials, how it interacts, how it’s detected and so on, and it was curiosity driven.”
In 1994, as Raymer was measuring quantum wave functions at UO, scientists elsewhere were discovering new ways to use that research.
“They realized if you could control light and atoms very precisely, you could perhaps create a whole new type of technology,” he said.
Lasers are a practical application of quantum optics. An MRI scan works by manipulating protons to highlight certain parts of a patient’s body. Atomic clocks, the most accurate yet invented, measure time by the extremely consistent changing of electron energy levels.
Newer studies in practical quantum science, like quantum computing, involve quantum entanglement, where two or more particles become connected even over great distances. The same is true for hyper-accurate thermometers and accelerometers, sensors that can be improved through quantum entanglement.
“I’m working in areas that are very closely related to quantum communication. We call that the quantum internet,” Raymer said. “Other people, like (UO physicist) Hailin Wang, are working on science that has to do with quantum sensing.”
The quantum science generated at UO doesn’t get transformed into clocks, thermometers and computers on campus. Raymer said the university lacks the engineering college to build such practical machines like the new Knight Campus will provide for applied biology.
Tiemo Landes, a UO graduate student in Raymer’s lab, said he hasn’t quite decided where his current work on the interaction of light and matter will take him. But he’s working with UO chemistry professor Andrew Marcus on inventing a quantum enhanced spectroscopy device to study processes involved in solar energy collection and photosynthesis.
“One of the exciting things about quantum technology right now is it’s matured to the level where there are a lot of applications on the horizon,” Landes said.
Allcock said interest in quantum computing at places like Google and IBM could make expertise earned at UO a valuable commodity. How long it is before UO grads are adding their innovations to the quantum computing problem will depend in part on success in the new lab, but for now Allcock’s attention is on building it and training graduate students how to use it when it opens in 2020.
“Trying to bring this big machine together is pretty much all of my time for the next couple of years,” Allcock said.
Follow Adam Duvernay on Twitter @DuvernayOR or email [email protected]
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