Technology’s quantum leap

by | Jan 27, 2022 | Feature Stories, Lead Story, Winter 2022 | 0 comments

As part of her job interview at ColdQuanta’s high-tech Boulder, Colorado office nearly three years ago, Hannah North ’18 performed a slightly unusual task: she played Operation, the battery-powered children’s game that requires players to carefully remove items with tweezers from a red-nosed “patient” on the operating table.

The company’s leaders wanted to test North’s patience, steadiness and attention to detail, skills she would need to use while carefully assembling containers for ultracold atoms as part of ColdQuanta’s quest to develop and build novel quantum technologies.

Thanks in part to her Operation skills, North landed the job as a precision assembly technician. She’s since been promoted to quantum engineer, a new research and development role that supports atomic and molecular physicists as they experiment with atoms that have been cooled to just above absolute zero.

North is one of the many Mines graduates now working in quantum technology, a fast-growing field that’s poised to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems by harnessing the unique properties of atoms and subatomic particles.

In the past, the few quantum jobs that existed were held almost exclusively by people with PhDs in physics. But as more and more companies enter the race to develop technologies such as quantum computers and quantum sensors, they need well-rounded engineers who can help them put theory into practice.

To help meet this growing demand, Mines is training the next generation of the quantum workforce with a new graduate degree, undergraduate minor and traineeship program. Graduates of these programs—as well as Mines alumni who are already working in quantum—will undoubtedly help shape the future of quantum technologies, which have the potential to drive innovation in fields such as pharmaceuticals, information security and finance.

“The engineering mindset is really the exact right way to approach a lot of experimental physics projects,” said North. “I don’t have an advanced degree, and I’m still encouraged to operate in the same space as PhD physicists. That’s the future of quantum engineering.

It’s making a field that was previously only accessible to people who had a PhD or many years of postdoc experience accessible to a larger number of people, people who have a background that looks more like mine, to solve problems in the way that an engineer does.”

The Second Quantum Revolution

Today’s quantum technologies have roots in the early 1900s, when physicists first began exploring the very small particles that make up all matter and energy. These early discoveries helped give rise to the modern electronics we use every day, such as desktop computers.

“Our ability to understand what’s happening and use quantum systems in devices stems from our knowledge of quantum mechanics— that was quantum 1.0, and it brought big changes to everyday life for everyone,” said Meenakshi Singh, Mines assistant professor of physics.

In recent years, science has advanced to the point that researchers can now control and manipulate quantum systems, which opens up potential new opportunities in computing, sensing, imaging and communications. Researchers are calling this current phase the second quantum revolution, or quantum 2.0.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in quantum technologies in recent years,” said Eliot Kapit, Mines associate professor of physics and director of Mines’ new quantum engineering program. “Quantum computers, really in the last five years or so, got a surge of commercial interest. Big tech companies took notice and started investing in quantum computing research teams.”

Governments across the globe are also keen to advance the science of quantum technologies, including the U.S. government, which created the National Quantum Initiative in December 2018 to “accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security of the United States,” according to the initiative’s website.

“This is seen as the next space race,” Kapit said. “We’re in a huge competition with other countries.”

The development of quantum computers, in particular, has generated intense interest around the world. Whereas classical computers create and store information as bits, which represent either a 1 or 0, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in a superposition of both 1 or 0. Qubits can also exhibit entanglement, a quantum phenomenon in which their states remain linked no matter how far apart they are.

Scientists believe that these and other special quantum properties will lead to improved processing speeds and increased computing power, which will someday make it possible to solve certain problems that classical computers can’t— such as optimizing supply chains or simulating molecules for the development of new drugs or materials.

Because quantum states such as superposition and entanglement are fragile and can easily be disturbed by interactions from their environment, today’s quantum computer prototypes—which look like big, shiny, industrial chandeliers—are finicky and prone to errors.

“You wouldn’t be too happy if, when you run your normal computer, it tried to do some computations and it had errors all the time and you could only run that computation for a limited time before all the information is scrambled and you lose any sense of what you were trying to do—that’s the state that quantum computing is at right now,” said Joseph Glick ’09, MS ’11 who works on experimental quantum hardware at IBM.

Even as the technology improves, however, quantum computers will likely never replace the classical computers that people and businesses use every day. The technology will only be useful for certain, very specific tasks—and scientists are still trying to determine exactly which ones.

While experimental physicists like Joseph Glick are taking a hands-on approach to developing the parts and pieces that make IBM’s quantum computers function, theoreticians like Jennifer Glick ’11 are investigating how and when various industries could actually benefit from quantum computers.

Her group at IBM partners with companies, national laboratories and universities to investigate ways that quantum computers can help solve problems or advance their businesses. In 2019, for example, Glick worked with international bank Barclays to develop quantum optimization methods for settling securities transactions. She also partnered with Boeing to come up with quantum algorithms that could be used in the future to design materials for aircraft.

“One of the hardest things is just trying to figure out, ‘Is quantum computing even a useful technique to throw at this problem?’” she said. “Because it might turn out there are really good, state-of-the-art classical methods that already do pretty darn well and it wouldn’t be worth running the thing on a quantum computer.”

Because quantum is so new, Glick said her role feels a lot like working at a startup. In addition to working on projects with very diverse subject matter, she’s also gotten involved in software development.

“Nothing is predefined in quantum computing,” she said. “We’re all just figuring it out as we go. You can basically define what you want your role to be, and that’s really cool. For people who find it motivating to have a lot of control over defining their career, quantum is a great place to be.”

Diversifying—and demystifying—quantum

Teams of researchers at companies such as IBM, Google, Amazon, Intel and Lockheed Martin are working hard to improve and scale up quantum computers. But to eventually develop devices that are consistent, accurate and useful, companies first need to hire scores of well-prepared, curious workers who are familiar with quantum concepts and research methods. That’s where Mines comes in.

“We recognized that this is something that’s been identified as a national need and, as quantum technology moves out of academia and national labs to industry, you’re going to need a bigger workforce—and you are never going to have enough people with PhDs to do that,” said Kapit. “We realized you could teach people, in a year or so, enough skills to really be able to make a contribution now to technological processes, to jump right in on day one.”

In addition to covering the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, classes in Mines’ new quantum engineering program teach students how to program quantum computers, how to design and build quantum components and how to take measurements and conduct experiments at extremely low temperatures, which help stabilize quantum states.

The program is a collaborative effort between Mines’ departments of applied mathematics and statistics, chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, materials science and physics, a structure that reflects the interdisciplinary nature of advancing quantum technology itself.

“Making a large-scale quantum computer work is an effort at the complexity level of something like the Manhattan Project or supercolliders,” said Kapit. “Like any mega science project, this is an enormous effort being carried out across a huge array of disciplines.”

Mines is also partnering with San José State University on a new student training program funded with a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. With the NSF Research Traineeship funding, the two universities will develop interdisciplinary training programs to help prepare master’s and doctoral students for careers in quantum information science and engineering.

Some of the funding will support an MS/PhD bridge program so master’s students from SJSU, a Hispanic-serving institution in the California State University system, can study at Mines for a semester or two.

“We’re hoping to broaden the scope of who participates,” said Hilary Hurst ’12, an SJSU assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy who is leading her university’s involvement in the traineeship program. “We are excited about the prospect of using educational materials that Mines has developed and working together to develop new ones to develop a blueprint for teaching quantum to a new array of students, not just Princeton, not just Harvard, not just PhDs. We’re going to need folks of all skill levels to work toward these technologies.”

While building quantum education from the ground up, faculty at the two schools also have another big goal: to make the field diverse and inclusive right from the start with initiatives such as implicit bias training for faculty and staff and a mentor-mentee network. By the traineeship program’s fifth year, they’re aiming for at least 40 percent of participants to come from underrepresented groups.

“We want to make sure this is an inclusive research environment for everybody because research has shown that most people who drop out of science drop out because they have this impostor syndrome—they feel like they don’t belong,” said Singh. “We’re including all of these things from the beginning to make sure that we get diverse students and that when they’re here, they feel equipped, they feel included and they can succeed.”

Above all else, Mines faculty hope to demystify the field and show students from diverse backgrounds that they, too, can play a role in determining the future of quantum.

“It has this aura of mystery and difficulty, but that stems from our preconceived notions,” Singh said. “We need to work toward doing away with these preconceived notions.”

What do quantum engineers do?

Quantum engineering is a relatively new field that draws on the principles of physics, electrical engineering, materials science, computer science, chemistry and mathematics to help develop and improve hardware and software that’s relevant to quantum technology, such as quantum computers and quantum sensors.

Researchers and professionals in this field may have some knowledge of quantum fundamentals— they’re quantum-aware or quantum-literate—but they’re not necessarily deep subject-matter experts like physicists. Instead, like other types of engineers, they have well-rounded training and knowledge that helps them ask questions and solve problems in quantum contexts.

Quantum engineers take the scientific discoveries of researchers and theorists and put them into practice, developing and testing novel applications in quantum technology. Their work is helping companies and government agencies push the boundaries of quantum computers, quantum sensors and other quantum devices.

A new quantum engineering program at Mines

Recognizing the growing demand for quantum- proficient professionals in the workforce, Mines created a new graduate program and undergraduate minor in quantum engineering.

The graduate program, which officially launched in fall 2020, includes thesis and non-thesis master’s degrees as well as graduate certificates and students can specialize in hardware or software. In their classes, graduate students learn about quantum information fundamentals, quantum many-body physics, quantum programming and low-temperature microwave measurements for quantum information. They also gain hands-on experience using quantum instruments and tools, such as helium-cooled units and microwave network analyzers.

The new minor also exposes undergraduate students to quantum theory and gives them access to relevant equipment so they can work in quantum-related roles with just a bachelor’s degree.

Both new interdisciplinary offerings bring together faculty from electrical engineering, physics, computer science, materials science, mathematics and chemistry.