University of Texas at Dallas: New NSF Grant To Advance Quantum Research, Education at UT Dallas

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The coldest place in North Texas — a physics lab at The University of Texas at Dallas — is about to heat up, thanks to a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to advance the science and engineering — and train the workforce — needed to make neutral-atom-based quantum information processing a reality.

“In this information age, UT Dallas aims to lead in the realization of quantum computing — a technology which will revolutionize computation. This new investment from the NSF establishes an important cornerstone for our efforts,” said Dr. Joseph Pancrazio, vice president for research and innovation at UTD.


In addition to basic research aimed at transitioning reliable quantum information technologies from theory to practice, the grant supports the development of a new undergraduate minor and a master’s degree in quantum information science and engineering (QISE), which would be the first such graduate degree offered in Texas. New degrees would need approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“UT Dallas is the next emerging power in quantum information science,” said Dr. Chuanwei Zhang, professor of physics in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics who leads the multi-institutional effort as principal investigator. “Based on our existing strengths, we are building a robust QISE community to help meet the future needs of Texas and the country. This involves expanding our research efforts and training the students who will become the scientists and engineers in the quantum information technology workforce.”

Although they have yet to be realized commercially, large-scale quantum computation and communication devices are theorized to be able to store more information and solve certain problems much faster than current computers and networks.

“The first quantum physics revolution 100 years ago led to the invention of transistors and lasers, which are the basis of all our current electronics and the internet,” said Dr. Shengwang Du, professor of physics and a co-principal investigator on the grant. “We are now facing a second quantum revolution, where controlling single electrons, atoms and photons will lead to next-generation information technologies based on quantum information processing.”

Cool Platform for Future Quantum Computers
The transistors that power conventional computers are quickly approaching a physical minimum in size, near the scale of a few atoms, which is where the curious effects of quantum physics take over. The next step in the evolution of computers is the quantum computer, whose fundamental logic units exploit this exotic behavior.

Cold atoms have become one of the major platforms for quantum computing in the past few years. Their advantage is that they can be isolated from the surrounding environment and do not interact with it, conditions that are needed for a quantum computer to operate reliably.

In his laboratory, Du uses lasers and magnetic fields to trap and cool atoms to extreme temperatures near absolute zero, a temperature colder than the coldest reaches of outer space and colder than liquid helium on Earth. Because atoms at these temperatures barely move, they can be manipulated and controlled precisely.

“In this information age, UT Dallas aims to lead in the realization of quantum computing — a technology which will revolutionize computation. This new investment from the NSF establishes an important cornerstone for our efforts.”

Dr. Joseph Pancrazio, vice president for research and innovation at UTD

“The fundamental rules of physics change at the quantum level, and those rules show up when we work with extremely cold atoms,” said Dr. Michael Kolodrubetz, assistant professor of physics and a senior investigator on the project. “They also become a factor as transistors continue to shrink and in other aspects of engineering and science, such as quantum chemistry.

“Nature and technological progress have forced us to the point where quantum physics becomes important in many fields. Our group is taking the next steps in fundamental research to understand it, while also training students and preparing them for jobs where these skills are in demand,” he said.

More Speed, Less Power
The fundamental unit of information in a conventional computer — the bit — conveys only two values of information — a 1 or a 0. But a quantum bit, or qubit, can exist as a combination of 1s and 0s at the same time or anywhere in between. This greatly increases the speed and capacity of information processing.

What They Said
Leaders of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) and the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science reacted to news of the new grant.

“This significant support from NSF recognizes UT Dallas’ research capabilities and potential to advance the emerging field of quantum information science and engineering. As educators, our physics faculty and other colleagues will also be pioneers in developing a model curriculum to help students understand and use quantum mechanics. The new undergraduate minor and master’s degree in QISE provide a tremendous opportunity for future graduates to impact society by revolutionizing computing, communication, security, electronics and sensing technologies,” said Dr. David Hyndman, NSM dean and the Francis S. and Maurine G. Johnson Distinguished University Chair.

“Interdisciplinary, inclusive spaces produce the greatest results, so the opportunity resulting from this NSF grant, which will bring together physicists, engineers, computer scientists and others from UT Dallas and other institutions, is unlimited,” said Dr. Stephanie G. Adams, dean of the Jonsson School, holder of the Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair and professor of systems engineering. “This is an exciting and timely project. The resulting advances in quantum technology will invariably lead to entirely new sectors in the workforce, with UTD graduates from the emerging QISE program leading the way.”

“Every year we try to improve the performance of computers, making them faster while consuming less power. That’s why we now have cellphones,” said Dr. Kanad Basu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and a senior investigator on the grant. “Quantum computers have immense potential to speed up computation.

“Encryption algorithms, processing of big data and artificial intelligence [AI] applications require a huge amount of computational resources. We basically do not have enough electricity to run these programs on classical computers. Quantum devices are the ideal future platform for AI and big data.”

Zhang said that the cross-disciplinary nature of the grant will lead to new and improved technologies.

“Just as physics and engineering worked together to create the first transistor, we need a similar joint effort to expand quantum information science and engineering so that quantum computers can become reliable, controllable and, eventually, more accessible to the general public for practical use,” he said.

Dr. Rashaunda Henderson, Eugene McDermott Professor of electrical engineering and a co-principal investigator on the grant, is an expert in radio frequency, microwave and millimeter-wave circuit design and integration. She co-developed a successful program in the IEEE Microwave Theory and Technology Society that provides upperclassmen and first-year graduate students with networking and professional development opportunities at national conferences.

Henderson said the NSF grant will be used to develop a similar program for UTD students in QISE, as well as outreach efforts to K-12 students and underrepresented groups.

“We want to empower our students to go into this field and equip them to work in national labs or the military, in tech companies or in academia, or to start their own companies,” she said. “We’re all committed to contributing to advances in quantum information science and engineering, but we’re especially excited about the workforce development aspects.”

Dr. Dana Anderson, professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Dr. Mark Saffman, professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, are also co-principal investigators on the grant. They are affiliated with ColdQuanta, a global quantum technology company, which Anderson co-founded. Saffman is the company’s chief scientist for global information.

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