Almost every area of modern society will eventually be touched by the research around quantum physics being done today.
Changes will come in small packages at first – in the form of increased computing power and better artificial intelligence, for example. But larger social changes around workforce development for the field and the broad adoption of newly engineered tools will spur transformation over the next few decades.
Professor Scott Diddams said these shifts will likely usher in a new age not unlike the bronze or industrial in scope and impact. And CU Boulder is well positioned to lead that push thanks to growing research expertise, ongoing partnerships, and top facilities on campus.
“The opportunities and the new benefits of quantum science and engineering to our broader society are coming into clear focus today,” said Diddams, who recently joined the Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering as the Davis Chair. “You can see that in the interest at the highest levels of government, by new researcher activity around the world, and by entrepreneurs in the technical business community looking to expand and bring these tools into our lives. It’s all really starting to come together.”
Diddams joined CU Engineering as a visiting professor this fall and will become a full professor in 2022. He will also serve in a leadership role in the newly formed Quantum Engineering Initiative – a significant and strategic investment into translational quantum engineering research by the college that includes educational components, faculty hiring efforts, and dedicated lab space for collaboration.
Before joining the college, Diddams served as a fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and was an adjoint professor in the CU Boulder Department of Physics, developing a world-leading research program in the field of optical frequency combs and quantum metrology. He received his PhD degree from the University of New Mexico in 1996 and has earned many awards in his career, including the Department of Commerce Gold and Silver Medals for "revolutionizing the way frequency is measured,” as well as the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE) and the IEEE Rabi award. He is also a fellow of the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society and a senior member of IEEE.
Diddams said the central aspect of his research is related to the development of lasers that function as synthesizers of light waves and the use of that unique tool in precision quantum metrology. Those tools, known as optical frequency combs, can be thought of as clockwork or set of gears that link the frequencies of radio and optical waves, he said.
“Optical waves oscillate at frequencies that are much too fast to measure directly,” he said. “So functioning in a similar way to how a clock works: laser frequency combs allow us to count the ultrafast cycles of light. This has enabled a new generation of atomic clocks that now measure time with 18 digits of precision. That has impacts for entirely new types of navigation and communication systems in the future.”
Diddams added that frequency combs are also a critical part of quantum-based sensors and measurements. They can be used, for example, to help astronomers find exoplanets and to measure and quantify trace amounts of materials and gases for atmospheric sensing, chemical analysis, and microscopic imaging.
“Our goal was to bring in top talent in this critical research field and augment the extensive expertise among our faculty that was already present,” he said. “That is going to be a multi-year process and it will pair with efforts to better partner with our colleagues on and off campus – including CU Boulder’s foundational strength in quantum physics and the vibrant entrepreneurial and research ecosystem around this field we are seeing today in Boulder and beyond.”
Diddams said the planned creation of a new advanced fabrication and cleanroom space within the college in spring 2022, along with ongoing campus quantum activity through the CUbit initiative, gave him great confidence in what could be accomplished here in the next few decades.
“It is exciting to build the vision of what the future might hold for the college’s quantum initiative – especially how it could become a central connection point for CU Engineering faculty and students, government researchers, and industrial partners,” he said. “I am proud to play a leadership role in that effort.”