‘The Wild West’
Virginia Tech researches quantum technologies
From an outsider’s perspective, it may appear as if technology is improving and changing almost daily — especially sparked by pandemic-driven remote work. But according to a 2021 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 80% of technologies improve in performance at a rate of less than 25% per year.
Virginia Tech, however, is focusing on the future of technology: quantum research, engineering and computing.
Not only is the Blacksburg-based school investing resources in a field that’s burgeoning in importance, but it’s also serving as a force for thought leadership in this space. Between the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering and a $12.5 million gift from Fortune 500 federal contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. to fund quantum technology research and education, the university is moving into the research and development of quantum technology. It’s believed that quantum research will lead to the development of exponentially faster and smaller computers and processors, as well as groundbreaking methods for making data more secure.
Quantum technology “would allow us to solve computational problems that we couldn’t solve in our lifetime,” says Luke Lester, head of Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).
The science of quantum physics and mechanics involves the study of the physical properties and interactions of matter at the scale of atomic and subatomic particles, explains Wayne A. Scales, Virginia Tech’s J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering. This could involve studying how atoms interact with electromagnetic fields as well as the formation of molecules, adds Sophia Economou, a Virginia Tech physics professor and director of the Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering.
Quantum physics is very different from the classical physics discovered by Isaac Newton more than three centuries ago. Quantum physics’ counterintuitive features — such as the ability of matter to exist in multiple states at one time — can be used to implement new kinds of technology.
Quantum computing adds to the ability to manipulate the very smallest pieces of matter and technology — but packs a bigger punch than classical computers.
Quantum computers can solve problems that traditional computers — even supercomputers — can’t handle, according to IBM, a pioneer in the development of quantum computers. In January 2019, International Business Machines Corp. unveiled the first integrated quantum computer, IBM Q System One, designed for scientific and commercial use. Applications for this quantum computer include new methods for modeling financial data and designing optimal paths across global systems for more efficient logistics practices or optimizing fleet operations, according to IBM.
While we’re still probably at least a decade away from seeing quantum technology in practical corporate use, IBM has continued to develop quantum computers, which are generally much better at finding patterns in data and can create more advanced algorithms. One real-world application of IBM’s quantum computing efforts so far is taking place via a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, which is using the technology to research and develop more efficient lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Using quantum computing, researchers can model molecular interactions occurring inside of batteries in hopes of developing longer-lasting batteries with greater charging capacities and speeds.
In short, quantum technology is expected to impact virtually every branch of engineering in the future, Scales says. So, Virginia Tech researchers, students and professors are studying and developing ways to implement quantum theory in a variety of applications, such as cryptography and cybersecurity.
“To be really simple, it is the future,” says Peter Kent, a graduate research assistant at the Hume Center for National Security and Technology and National Security Institute at Virginia Tech.
Quantum science research requires expertise and input from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, engineering, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Interdisciplinary research in quantum computing started organically at Virginia Tech, Economou says. Much of the effort started with Economou’s own research, along with that of chemistry, physics and math faculty members.
“The disciplinary collaboration takes patience in the beginning because you need to establish a common language — sometimes the same things with different names,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t know the same things and that’s good.”
But to streamline collaboration, Virginia Tech is forming two centers for quantum research: The Center of Quantum Architecture and Software Development and the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering.
The former, which is based at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Alexandria, is funded by the Northrop Grumman gift and will be focused on coding and software for quantum computing.
In November 2021, Northrop Grumman announced the quantum-focused gift, which will fund endowed faculty, fellowships, programming connecting the corporation to the campus, pathway programs for K-12 students and support for master’s degree students in computer science and computer engineering experiential learning programs. So far, the Northrop Grumman funding has gone toward searching for another professor and researcher and helping connect company experts with Virginia Tech quantum science and engineering faculty to develop quantum computers and technology.
“Additionally, the company’s funding is also supporting the development of a diverse pipeline of talent to increase the opportunities for students who want to study quantum,” says a Northrop Grumman spokesperson. “We’re in the early planning stages of standing up experiential learning opportunities between students and industry partners in the application of this critical area of research, science and engineering.”
Economou’s Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering focuses on researching quantum computing and communications. Her group, which includes students, researchers and faculty from disciplines such as computer science, physics, chemistry, and engineering, performs theoretical research in quantum information, technologies, networking and cryptography.
“The line between ‘researching’ and ‘developing’ quantum technology is somewhat blurry,” Economou explains. “I would say we are on the more fundamental side, but our work is important for the development of quantum technology. There exist multiple companies, including many startups, that are on the more applied side. To really create and scale up a technology, industry is needed anyway.”
As Virginia Tech’s two quantum technology research centers continue to grow, professors and students are expanding their quantum science research into new applications of quantum computing and technology.
At the university’s electrical and computer engineering department, Lester and another professor, Mantu Hudait, are researching quantum dot technology, which transports electrons to emit various colors of light to be used in applications such as lasers, LED lights and medical imaging devices. Other quantum research being done at Virginia Tech’s ECE focuses on information processing, cybersecurity, and radio frequency modalities.
Virginia Tech is also part of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), a national initiative focused on growing the U.S. quantum tech industry. The QED-C was established through the National Quantum Initiative Act passed by Congress in 2018 to accelerate quantum research.
Real-world risks, rewards
The pandemic revealed the fragility of many aspects of life — including the difficulty of protecting sensitive information. Between 2020 and 2021, the average number of cyberattacks per company rose by 31%, according to Accenture’s State of Cybersecurity Resilience 2021 report. But quantum applications have the potential to achieve new levels of cybersecurity, Lester says.
“What do consumers of engineering and technology ultimately care about? They care about speed, and they care about security, passwords and stealth,” he adds.
But beware: In the wrong hands, a quantum computer also is efficient and fast enough to break the most secure current encryption codes, Scales says. A foreign adversary or bad actor with a quantum computer could easily hack into systems and steal data, he adds. That’s one of the reasons governments all over the world are investing in quantum research, Economou says. It’s hoped that quantum cryptography research would help prevent future quantum computing attacks.
Other applications of quantum computing include simulating chemical reactions to design drugs or developing solutions to complicated logistics problems, Economou says. Quantum computing will also be important for technology optimization purposes like finding optimal data patterns. This could lead to finding better logistical patterns and increasing energy efficiency, providing solutions that could save corporations money.
“That’s the direction that industry and business are interested in because, of course, optimization has a big impact across many different applications,” Economou adds. “Right now, with quantum computers, we’re at the stage where people are still developing the basic hardware, the building blocks, and we don’t even know yet what kind of technology we’ll end up using in a real quantum computer.”
Communication networks like 5G could be improved by quantum technology, making data more secure. 5G communication could be encrypted by quantum key distribution — a method of making data more secure via quantum mechanics. Verizon started trials using quantum keys to protect its 5G network in 2020. One of the most powerful things about quantum-powered cybersecurity is its increased ability to detect intrusions, Scales says.
“Encryption keys are continuously generated and are immune to attacks because any disruption to the channel breaks the quantum state of photons, signaling eavesdroppers are present,” states a 2020 report on Verizon’s quantum key trial.
Teaching the future
Quantum research leaders at Virginia Tech agree that this type of emerging technology requires collaboration from several STEM-related disciplines. That’s why Scales is so focused on creating a quantum science curriculum and other learning opportunities for students from many educational backgrounds.
“It’s the Wild West almost,” says Sefunmi “Shef” Ashiru, a rising senior at Virginia Tech studying computer science and quantum science. “There’s a lot of opportunity to just try things.” Ashiru is also a backend software engineering intern with IBM.
Scales is primarily focused on experiential learning for quantum science, especially more laboratory experience for students.
“A lot of companies really think that this is critical,” he says.
To that end, Scales created a quantum research lab space for both undergraduate and graduate students to learn about quantum information science. Students start out by learning the basic concepts of quantum science, and then moving on into more advanced curricula, including quantum cybersecurity, quantum cryptography and quantum techniques for various types of advanced sensors.
“It’s really beneficial because it really forces the students who ideally would be multidisciplinary to learn teamwork to work through the problem,” Kent says. He also focuses on quantum research with Scales.
Scales is also working to develop sophomore-level courses in quantum science to get students interested in the topic as early as possible and to enter the talent pipeline. Outside of Virginia Tech, Scales also is working to replicate quantum research labs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Virginia State University and Texas’ Prairie View A&M University. One goal is also to get students interested in quantum science even sooner — like in K-12 schools.
“We’re at a point now where we can understand the extraordinary potential of the field, but we have to continue to work hard to get capable young people interested and then come up with a strategy for educating them in the field,” Scales says. “That’s a great challenge.”
‘An exciting time’
As more applications for these new quantum technologies are realized, companies also are establishing their own quantum programs, Economou says. Amazon.com Inc., Google LLC, Microsoft Corp. and IBM all have quantum research and development programs. Quantum-related jobs range from software engineering to more research-focused positions, like in academia.
“There’s a lot of positions open at this point in major companies and startups,” Economou says. “So, it’s an exciting time to get into the field.”
Starting out in quantum research doesn’t require waiting until college or a career. In 2021, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage (C2QA), Virginia Tech launched an annual summer school program for high schoolers interested in learning about quantum science. The four-day event is free, and students can learn quantum concepts and use quantum simulators and processors provided by IBM. This year, about 150 students participated in the program, which was held in early August.
While getting students interested in quantum science at an earlier age is helpful, another strategy for developing a talent pipeline will include reskilling or upskilling current tech workers. Tech companies will need to stay up to date with the latest advances in quantum science and computing or risk falling behind.
“These are hard problems. This is not trivial,” Lester says. “We’re probably going to retrain an awful lot of engineers, reeducate [them] to learn quantum as well. It’s a big task also to educate people because it’s going to be a big shift.”
The most optimistic estimates say we’re five years away from seeing quantum technology becoming practical enough for corporate or workplace settings, Economou explains, but it could be more like 10 to 20 years until that happens. Quantum research will take time — as did other technological revolutions.
“Quantum computing will be very different. At this point we do not envision a ‘personal quantum computer’ to replace a laptop,” Economou says. “Quantum computers would be more specialized machines used by the government or industry. Presumably, initially there would be a small number of such machines to which customers can connect to solve specialized problems.”
Quantum communication networks could potentially be established relatively quickly compared with other quantum technologies, she says, but even that will still take several years. Keeping the momentum of quantum research and development going, she says, will require time and plenty of resources.
“You … need significant investment, which is actually happening right now in the U.S. and worldwide,” Economou says. “This has been recognized as an area of national security and economic development.”