World Quantum Day: Advancements in quantum technology at Pritzker Molecular Engineering

The ability to harness quantum phenomena like superposition and entanglement will usher in a new generation of transformative technologies.

These advances in quantum research could allow us to solve previously intractable computational problems, develop “unhackable” communications, build more powerful and energy-efficient devices, and even impact how we diagnose and treat disease.

But how far away is this quantum future? And what have we learned so far?

Discover some of the groundbreaking quantum discoveries made over the past year by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) and at critical partner institutions like the Chicago Quantum Exchange, Argonne National Laboratory, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and many more.

Why quantum tech will change our future

In a special episode of Big Brains podcast, two of the leading minds helping build the field of quantum technology share their work: David Awschalom, Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at PME and the founding director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange; and Supratik Guha, professor at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and senior advisor to Argonne National Laboratory’s Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate.

The quantum internet, explained

The quantum internet is a network of quantum computers that will someday send, compute, and receive information encoded in quantum states. The quantum internet will not replace the modern or “classical” internet; instead, it will provide new functionalities such as quantum cryptography and quantum cloud computing.

While the full implications of the quantum internet won’t be known for some time, several applications have been theorized, and some, like quantum key distribution, are already in use. It’s unclear when a full-scale global quantum internet will be deployed, but researchers estimate that interstate quantum networks will be established within the United States in the next 10 to 15 years.

Learn more about how the quantum internet works and what it will allow us to do

Recent quantum advancements

UChicago researchers set record by preserving quantum states for more than five seconds

Applications of quantum technology require a quantum version of a computer bit, known as a “qubit,” that stores quantum information.

Current research challenges include finding out how to easily read the information held in these qubits, as well as increase the short memory time, or “coherence,” of qubits, which is usually limited to microseconds or milliseconds.

Last year, a team of researchers achieved two major breakthroughs to overcome these common challenges for quantum systems: They were able to read out their qubit on demand, and then keep the quantum state intact for over five seconds—a new record for this class of devices. Additionally, the researchers’ qubits are made from an easy-to-use material called silicon carbide, which is widely found in lightbulbs, electric vehicles, and high-voltage electronics.

Chicago expands and activates quantum network, taking steps toward a secure quantum internet

Scientists have, for the first time, connected the city of Chicago and suburban labs with a quantum network—nearly doubling the length of what was already one of the longest in the country.

The network is now actively running quantum security protocols using technology provided by Toshiba, distributing quantum keys over optic cable at a speed of over 80,000 quantum bits per second between Chicago and the western suburbs. Toshiba’s participation in the project makes the Chicago network a unique collaboration between academia, government and industry.

Researchers will use the Chicago network to test new communication devices, security protocols, and algorithms that will eventually connect distant quantum computers around the nation and the world. The work represents the next step towards a national quantum internet, which will have a profound impact on communications, computing, and national security.

Sensing a cure: quantum technology takes aim at neurodegenerative disease

If humans could use x-ray vision to watch the earliest cellular processes of Alzheimer’s disease, they would see a strand of protein somewhere in the brain tie itself into a misshapen knot.

This microscopic macramé, known as protein misfolding, is normal in human biology. However, when the body’s mechanism for sifting out these misfolded proteins fails, the result can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

Why exactly proteins misfold and why the body sometimes fails to eliminate them is unknown, and it’s one reason why researchers like Peter Maurer, assistant professor of molecular engineering, are developing some of the world’s most advanced biological sensors.

Built from diamonds and powered by quantum physics, Maurer’s nanosensors will be able to measure magnetic and electric fields, time, temperature, and pressure inside a living cell. And while his research is still in an early phase, it has far-reaching potential in medicine and beyond.

Chicago high schoolers become first members of U.S. public to use ultra-secure quantum technology in mock voting event

In October last year, more than 50 students from Kenwood Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side became the first members of the U.S. public to utilize new quantum technology to successfully conduct an important first step towards an ultra-secure vote on a modern hot topic: should social media companies be allowed to censor information/misinformation?

The first-of-its-kind event demonstrated foundational technology that could change the future of communications, with impacts on national security, banking, and privacy, while encouraging Chicago’s youth to learn more about quantum information science. 

As much of today’s national strategy surrounding quantum technology first began under his leadership, former President Barack Obama surprised the students at the event. He shared a few words about the dangers of disinformation online in an era where their attention is a prized commodity for businesses, which was the topic of their vote.

A new quantum approach to solve electronic structures of complex materials

If you know the atoms that compose a particular molecule or solid material, the interactions between those atoms can be determined computationally, by solving quantum mechanical equations—at least, if the molecule is small and simple. However, solving these equations, critical for fields from materials engineering to drug design, requires a prohibitively long computational time for complex molecules and materials.

Now, researchers at the Pritzker Molecular Engineering and the Department of Chemistry have explored the possibility of solving these electronic structures using a quantum computer. The research, which uses a combination of new computational approaches was published online in the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation.

New tool disentangles the electronic states layer-by-layer in quantum materials

A new tool developed by researchers at the Pritzker Molecular Engineering can help reveal the origin of electronic states in designed materials—a step toward harnessing the materials for future quantum technology applications.

The tool, developed by Asst. Prof. Shuolong Yang and his team, will help researchers better understand magnetic topological insulators: materials with special surface features that could make them integral to quantum information science technologies.

Through a technique called layer-encoded frequency-domain photoemission, researchers send two laser pulses into a layered material. The resulting vibrations, coupled with the measurement of energy, allows researchers to piece together a “movie” that shows how electrons move in each layer.

Engineering robust and scalable molecular qubits

The concept of “symmetry” is essential to fundamental physics: a crucial element in everything from subatomic particles to macroscopic crystals. Accordingly, a lack of symmetry—or asymmetry—can drastically affect the properties of a given system.

Qubits, the quantum analog of computer bits for quantum computers, are extremely sensitive—the barest disturbance in a qubit system is enough for it to lose any quantum information it might have carried. Given this fragility, it seems intuitive that qubits would be most stable in a symmetric environment. However, for a certain type of qubit—a molecular qubit—the opposite is true.

Researchers from Pritzker Molecular Engineering, the University of Glasgow, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that molecular qubits are much more stable in an asymmetric environment, expanding the possible applications of such qubits, especially as biological quantum sensors.

Building better quantum sensors

Usually, a defect in a diamond is a bad thing. But for engineers, miniscule blips in a diamond’s otherwise stiff crystal structure are paving the way for ultrasensitive quantum sensors that push the limits of today’s technologies. Now, researchers at Pritzker Molecular Engineering have developed a method to optimize these quantum sensors, which can detect tiny perturbations in magnetic or electric fields, among other things.

Their new approach, published in PRX Quantum, takes advantage of the way defects in diamonds or semiconductors behave like qubits— the smallest unit of quantum information.

“Researchers are already using this kind of qubit to make really amazing sensors,” said Prof. Aashish Clerk, senior author of the new work. “What we’ve done is come up with a better way of getting the most information we can out of these qubits.”