Today, the National Science Foundation announced that CU Boulder will receive a $25 million award to launch a new quantum science and engineering research center.
The new center will be led by physicist Jun Ye and is a partnership with 11 other research organizations in the United States and abroad. Together, these pioneers will explore several “grand challenges.” They include how exotic quantum phenomena, such as quantum entanglement, will advance new frontiers in measurement science; how quantum sensing can help researchers to discover new fundamental physics; and how researchers can turn those advancements into real-world technologies.
“Imagine if we can build robust quantum systems that can go outside of our labs, that can completely change how we sense the physical world, how we navigate and how we communicate with each other,” said Ye, a fellow in JILA, a partnership between CU Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “We’re asking how we can take advantage of recent advances in quantum physics to actually solve useful problems for society.”
The new center is named Quantum Systems through Entangled Science and Engineering (Q-SEnSE), a nod to its focus on building close ties between scientists and engineers—including from the CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science.
“We are proud to partner in this new center, which will address key priorities for NIST and the nation—quantum science, measurement science and advancing U.S. innovation,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Walter G. Copan. “NIST and JILA are recognized world leaders in quantum science, and we’re delighted with the strength of the team that has been assembled with Jun Ye as the first director of Q-SEnSE.”
Ye added that the new center, CU Boulder’s third major NSF center, will also focus on educating and training the young people who will become the quantum workforce of the future. CU Boulder has a strong tradition and strength in this area, and is already forming partnerships with schools and community colleges across the Rocky Mountain region to do just that.
Establishing the Q-SEnSE center is the latest step in the university’s campaign to grow Colorado into what Ye calls “the quantum capital of the world.”
“This center is an exciting next step to expand on our CUbit Quantum Initiative, which brings together JILA, Engineering, Sciences, NIST and academic and industry partners in the region,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Terri Fiez. “Q-SEnSE will allow us to leverage the full power of our combined quantum capabilities to lead the global quantum revolution.”
The new center emerges, in part, from decades of research by Ye and his students and colleagues on atomic clocks—devices that use networks of strontium atoms to track the passage of time with previously unimaginable accuracy. Such clocks, he added, could also become precise navigational or scientific sensors, capable of detecting even minute shifts in Earth’s gravitational pull.
But the practical application of such technologies has, to date, lagged behind their promise and performance in the lab.
“A major challenge is: How do we engineer these sensitive systems to be robust?” said Ye, also a professor adjoint in the Department of Physics at CU Boulder. “It’s not just about putting them in a box.”
The new NSF center will work toward that goal. Over five years, Ye and his colleagues at CU Boulder and its 11 partner organizations will not only explore the fundamental physics underlying devices like atomic clocks. They’ll also partner with engineers to turn those dynamics into tools that anyone can use.
Forming those new connections among disciplines has also been a key component of CU Boulder’s CUbit Quantum Initiative, launched in 2019.
“A challenge as big as quantum requires collaboration between many types of scientists and engineers. This type of collaboration requires a catalyzing event,” said Greg Rieker, an associate professor in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering and a co-principal investigator of Q-SEnSE. “This grant is the event that we needed.”
Ye added that the center isn’t just a Colorado initiative—solving these global challenges will take leaders from across the globe.
“This center will have a national impact because it takes national leaders to solve these grand challenges together,” Ye said. “We feel really fortunate to have great people from both coasts and up and down the Rocky Mountains on our team.”
The new center will include researchers from Harvard University, MIT, Stanford University, University of Delaware, University of Oregon, University of New Mexico and the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Several government labs, including NIST, Los Alamos National Laboratory, MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, will play major roles in the initiative.
Other CU Boulder and JILA investigators in the center include Svenja Knappe, Dana Anderson, Penina Axelrad, Juliet Gopinath, Murray Holland, Shu-Wei Huang, Adam Kaufman, Konrad Lehnert, Heather Lewandowski, Claire Monteleoni, Cindy Regal, Ana Maria Rey and James Thompson.
“Quantum information science has the potential to change the world. But to realize that potential, we must first answer some fundamental research questions,” said Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, NSF Director. “Through the Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes, NSF is making targeted investments. Within five years, we are confident these institutes can make tangible advances to help carry us into a true quantum revolution.”
“Quantum sensors that measure everything from light to gravity’s effects have the potential to bring us more precise measurements than we’ve ever been able to capture, but we have not yet come close to even glimpsing realizing those full possibilities,” said NSF Program Director Dominique Dagenais. "This center will take on the challenging work of realizing implementing the potential of quantum sensing, taking our ideas and translating them into new research findings and technologies.”
"We are excited to participate in this Quantum Leap Challenge Institute, which will advance scientific, technological educational and industrial foundations for quantum sensors, measurements and networks,” said Mark Kasevich, professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford.
“The Quantum Leap Challenge Institute is a fantastic possibility to really bring a wide range of ideas and abilities to an impactful point,” said Susanne Yelin, professor in residence at Harvard University. “I personally am very excited by the prospect to strongly collaborate with so many experiments and other theorists.”
"It is exciting to once again be involved with our long-time collaborators at JILA, especially because we are now focused on using some of the tools developed at JILA and the Center for Ultracold Atoms to take the next step in quantum precision measurement,” said John Doyle, professor of physics at Harvard.
"Q-SEnSE will tackle the goals of the National Quantum Initiative head on: addressing basic research in Quantum Information Science (QIS), expanding the number of researchers, educators and students with training in QIS and promoting the development and inclusion of multidisciplinary curriculum and research opportunities for QIS at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral level,” said Ivan Deutsch, director of the Center for Quantum Information and Control at the University of New Mexico.
“Quantum technologies are likely to provide significant breakthroughs in areas such as new sensors, precision timekeeping, fundamental new discoveries through precision measurements and possibly quantum computing,” said Vladan Vuletic, professor of physics at MIT. “There is now a worldwide race between Europe, Asia and the U.S. to develop and apply quantum technologies, and the new institute will train a significant number of students in this emerging area.”