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UW ECE team receives $800K award from the National Science Foundation to help increase capacity of quantum computing systems

September 30, 2020

Story by Wayne Gillam | UW ECE News

Headshots in a graphic illustration of Mo Li, Arka Majumdar and Karl Böhringer

UW ECE professors Mo Li, Arka Majumdar and Karl Böhringer are leading a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research team that is working toward dramatically increasing the capacity of quantum computing systems to retain and process information. Quantum computing holds the potential to spur significant breakthroughs in science and engineering, as well as improve many aspects of modern life. Scaling-up the technology for practical applications is one of the field’s greatest challenges, and the UW ECE-led team stands to make a significant contribution toward addressing this issue. Photo illustration by Ryan Hoover

Quantum computing is creating new ways to approach complex, data-intensive problems, and it holds the potential to spur significant breakthroughs in science and engineering. Improvements to drug development, online security, financial modeling, battery technology, traffic optimization, and even better weather forecasting could all be made possible by quantum computing systems. However, scaling-up the computing capacity of quantum systems to a level that would be useful across a wide range of applications is one of the field’s greatest challenges.

A multidisciplinary research team at the University of Washington Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (UW ECE) is collaborating with a Bay Area startup, Atom Computing, and the University of Illinois to help solve this problem and to enhance the quantum workforce. The team, led by UW ECE professors Mo Li, Arka Majumdar and Karl Böhringer, recently received a new $800,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator grant to greatly increase the capacity of quantum computing systems to retain and process information. To achieve this goal, the UW ECE-led team will develop a chip-scale, acousto-optic multi-beam steering system that will enable a dramatic scale-up of cold-atom quantum computing systems to greater than 1,000 qubits. It will be quite an accomplishment when fully realized, given that the world’s largest quantum computer is still well under 100 qubits.

Launched in 2019, the NSF Convergence Accelerator program was created to accelerate basic research and discovery aligning with the NSF’s 10 “Big Ideas.” The program’s main focus is to make timely investments to solve high-risk societal challenges through use-inspired convergence research (multidisciplinary research driven by its intended application), ultimately delivering tangible solutions to improve the lives of millions of people.

In 2020, the NSF continues to invest in two transformative research areas of national importance — quantum technology and artificial intelligence (AI) — to ensure that technological advancements in these areas have a positive impact on society.

“The quantum technology and AI-driven data and model sharing topics were chosen based on community input and identified federal research and development priorities,” said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. “This is the program’s second cohort, and we are excited for these teams to use convergence research and innovation-centric fundamentals to accelerate solutions that have a positive societal impact.”

The research team has the interdisciplinary expertise needed in integrated photonics, miniature diffractive optics, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to realize a promising scheme of quantum computing. Li is confident that his team will achieve a high level of impact. Beyond quantum computing, the beam steering technology that the team is developing may also find revolutionary applications in remote sensing, autonomous navigation and virtual reality.

“Quantum technology has entered the 2.0 stage,” Li said. “A critical effort is to employ a hybrid of technologies to increase the number of qubits and realize a scheme of system-level integration for quantum computing and simulation.”

Böhringer added, “I am excited to work with this team to apply MEMS technology toward miniaturized, scalable quantum computing systems. The long-term investments that the NSF has made in the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure and its predecessor programs are an invaluable resource for this project.”

Over the next nine months, the UW ECE-led team will work to build a proof-of-concept for their solution by leveraging multidisciplinary expertise; NSF Convergence Accelerator innovation processes such as human-centered design, team science, pitch preparation and presentation coaching; and crosscutting partnerships between academia, non-profits, government and industry.

The UW ECE team is among a cohort of 29 teams who will participate in a pitch competition and proposal evaluation to move into phase two of the program. If successful, the team will be eligible for additional funding — up to $5 million for a period of 24 months to further develop prototyping and build a sustainability model to continue impact beyond NSF support. After completing the entire program, the team plans to distribute its new optical beam steering technology by manufacturing devices at scale in an industrial foundry and delivering them to a broad user base nationwide.

Learn more about this UW ECE-led research project and the NSF Convergence Accelerator program on the NSF website.