FAYETTEVILLE — A $20 million National Science Foundation grant will support research “absolutely at the forefront” of efforts to develop a new generation of computing and communications technology, said Hugh Churchill, an associate professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
The grant award establishes a joint effort between UA and Montana State University known as the MonArk NSF Quantum Foundry.
Researchers will be working to more efficiently produce materials formed by bonding a single layer of atoms.
“Quantum technology requires very different material properties than regular computing and communications technology,” said Churchill, an associate director of the new initiative.
The branch of physics known as quantum mechanics helps explain workings of the physical world when objects are very small, temperatures are very cold or the time scale under study is very short, said Churchill.
Under these circumstances, “the laws of physics that objects follow are different than what they are in our everyday experience,” Churchill said.
Efforts to harness the science have led to work on technologies like quantum computers.
Churchill said it’s “too simplistic” to think of quantum computers as simply better and faster versions of the technology widely used today. But the technology holds promise, he said.
“There are certain types of problems that regular computers can’t do that we think quantum computers can do very efficiently,” Churchill said.
Salvador Barraza-Lopez, a UA associate professor of physics, is the project’s theory lead. Eight UA researchers have been involved in pursuing the federal grant, Churchill said.
The National Science Foundation in 2019 awarded a $25 million grant to create the first U.S. “quantum foundry,” based at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The proposal involving UA researchers was submitted that same year and, while not declined, also wasn’t approved for funding, Barraza-Lopez said. Researchers thought funding would come, but “we just didn’t know when,” he said.
“There has been quite a bit of increased funding in the area of quantum research centers around the country and around the world, for that matter,” Churchill said.
Churchill said that at UA, research on very small-scale materials “is a strength that has been building for probably the last 30 years,” helping demonstrate to the National Science Foundation that the university deserved such a grant.
An announcement by UA stated that roughly $10.6 million of the larger grant will go toward work done in Fayetteville.
Barraza-Lopez contrasted the size of the materials to be produced with that of certain electrical components that are crucial in the operation of today’s computers and other technology.
Transistors serve to control and direct electrical current, and the region through which the electrical charge flows in the transistor is roughly 10 nanometers, a size that’s a tiny fraction of the thickness of a human hair.
The materials being produced will be roughly 100 times thinner than that, and it remains an area of study just how these new materials respond to light or an electric current, Barraza-Lopez said.
“We have a feeling of what things they will do,” Barraza-Lopez said. But with the new foundry project, “the experimentalists will be getting new information about the physical behavior of those new materials,” he said.
Barraza-Lopez and Churchill both described the center as devoted to outreach.
Churchill said information as well as sample materials will be shared with other researchers throughout the country.
In a statement, John English, UA’s vice chancellor for research and innovation, said the partnership with Montana State “will help spur discovery and collaboration with industry across the U.S., and develop and train highly skilled students, researchers and workers right here in Arkansas.”
The university’s grant announcement stated that the effort will involve preparing students and others for jobs in the emerging field of quantum technologies.
“Our hope is that with centers like this, we can tap into the talent in the region,” Barraza-Lopez said.
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