Alex Levchenko named Humboldt Fellow

UW­–Madison physics professor Alex Levchenko has been named a Humboldt Fellow for Experienced Researchers. Sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the fellowship enabled highly-qualified scientists and scholars from abroad to spend time conducting research at a partner university in Germany.

Levchenko was nominated by the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, where he will be affiliated with the Quantum Many Body Theory Department. His research topic will be “Effects of Strong Coupling Fluctuations, Criticality, and Topology in Superconductors.”

Bucket brigades and proton gates: Researchers shed new light on water’s role in photosynthesis

This story is adapted from one originally published by SLAC by Ali Sundermier

Photosystem II is a protein in plants, algae and cyanobacteria that uses sunlight to break water down into its atomic components, unlocking hydrogen and oxygen. A longstanding question about this process is how water molecules are funneled into the center of Photosystem II, where water is split to produce the oxygen we breathe. A better understanding of this process could inform the next generation of artificial photosynthetic systems that produce clean and renewable energy from sunlight and water.

In a paper published last week in Nature Communications, an international collaboration between scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and several other institutions uncovers how the protein takes in water and how hydrogen is removed in order to release the oxygen molecules.

Profile picture of Uwe Bergmann
Uwe Bergmann

“Plants use the energy from sunlight to split two water molecules and produce the oxygen we breath. The study shows for the first time atomic-resolution snapshots of the likely channel and gate, where the water molecules arrive to the catalytic center to be split apart, and the channel where the protons are shuttled out during the splitting,” says Uwe Bergmann, the Martin L. Perl professor in ultrafast x-ray science at UW–Madison. “This information will help our understanding of one of the most fundamental reactions on earth, and how we might use sunlight in the future to create fuels.”

At SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser, the team illuminated samples from cyanobacteria with ultrafast pulses of X-rays to collect both X-ray crystallography and spectroscopy data to simultaneously map the protein structure and how electrons flow in the protein. Through this technique, they are able to test competing theories of how Photosystem II splits water into oxygen. Over the past few years, the team has used this method to observe various steps of this water-splitting cycle at the temperature at which it occurs in nature. 

Scientists at UW–Madison have been instrumental to developing these and related x-ray imaging methods over the last decade.

The center of the protein acts as a catalyst, which drives certain chemical reactions to happen in a highly efficient manner. This research seeks to unlock how nature has optimized this catalytic process over millions of years of evolution. A cluster of four manganese atoms and one calcium atom are connected by oxygen atoms, and surrounded by water and the outer layers of the protein. In the step the scientists looked at, water flows through a pathway into the center of the protein, where one water molecule ultimately forms a bridge between a manganese atom and a calcium atom. The researchers showed that this water molecule likely provides one of the oxygen atoms in the oxygen molecule produced at the end of the cycle.

a schematic of the proposed mechanism is shown
The proposed proton gate around D1-E65, D2-E312, and D1-R334 in the open and closed state. | In Nature Communications,

Last year, the researchers discovered that Photosystem II ferries water into the center as if through a bucket brigade: Water molecules move in many small steps from one end of the pathway to the other. They also showed that the calcium atom within the center could be involved in shuttling the water in. In this most recent study, the researchers pinpoint, for the first time, the exact pathway where this process unfolds.

“This might prevent water from interacting with the center prematurely, resulting in unwanted intermediates such as peroxide that can cause damage to the enzyme,” said Jan Kern, staff scientist at LBNL and one of the corresponding authors.

The researchers also showed that there is another pathway dedicated to removing hydrogen protons generated during the water-splitting reaction. In the proton pathway, they discovered the existence of a “proton gate,” which blocks the proton from coming back to the center.

“These results show where and how the water molecules enter the catalytic site, and where the protons are released, advancing our understanding of how two waters may come together to form the oxygen we breathe,” said Junko Yano, senior scientist at LBNL and one of the corresponding authors. “It demonstrates that it is just not enough to determine the structure of the main catalytic center, but it is also important to understand how the entire protein carries out the reaction.”

In addition to SLAC and LBNL, the collaboration includes researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden; Humboldt University of Berlin; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

LCLS is a DOE Office of Science user facility. This research was supported by the Office of Science.


New 3D integrated semiconductor qubit saves space without sacrificing performance

Small but mighty, semiconducting qubits are a promising area of research on the road to a fully functional quantum computer. Less than one square micron, thousands of these qubits could fit into the space taken up by one of the current industry-leading superconducting qubit platforms, such as IBM’s or Google’s.

For a quantum computer on the order of tens or hundreds of qubits, that size difference is insignificant. But to get to the millions or billions of qubits needed to use these computers to model quantum physical processes or fold a protein in a matter of minutes, the tiny size of the semiconducting qubits could become a huge advantage.

Except, says Nathan Holman, who graduated from UW–Madison physics professor Mark Eriksson’s group with a PhD in 2020 and is now a scientist with HRL Laboratories, “All those qubits need to be wired up. But the qubits are so small, so how do we get the lines in there?”

In a new study published in NPJ Quantum Information on September 9, Holman and colleagues applied flip chip bonding to 3D integrate superconducting resonators with semiconducting qubits for the first time, freeing up space for the control wires in the process. They then showed that the new chip performs as well as non-integrated ones, meaning that they solved one problem without introducing another.

If quantum computers are to have any chance of outperforming their classical counterparts, their individual qubit units need to be scalable so that millions of qubits can work together. They also need an error correction scheme such as the surface code, which requires a 2D qubit grid and is the current best-proposed scheme.

a three-chip sandwich showing the device architecture.
Proposed approach: the 3D integrated device consists of a superconducting die (top layer) and a semiconducting qubit die (middle layer) brought together though a technique known as flip chip integration. The bottom layer, proposed but not studied experimentally in this work, will serve to enable wiring and readout electronics. This study is the first time that semiconducting qubits (middle layer) and superconducting resonators (top layer) have been integrated in this way, and it frees up space for the wiring needed to control the qubits. | Credit: Holman et al., in NPJ Quantum Information

To attain any 2D tiled structure with current semiconducting devices, it quickly gets to the point where 100% of available surface area is covered by wires — and at that point, it is physically impossible to expand the device’s capacity by adding more qubits.

To try to alleviate the space issue, the researchers applied a 3D integration method developed by their colleagues at MIT. Essentially, the process takes two silicon dies, attaches pillars of the soft metal indium placed onto one, aligns the two dies, and then presses them together. The result is that the wires come in from the top instead of from the side.

“The 3D integration helps you get some of the wiring in in a denser way than you could with the traditional method,” Holman says. “This particular approach has never been done with semiconductor qubits, and I think the big reason why it hadn’t is that it’s just a huge fabrication challenge.”

profile photo of Mark Eriksson
Mark Eriksson
profile photo of Nathan Holman
Nathan Holman

In the second part of their study, the researchers needed to confirm that their new design was functional — and that it didn’t add disadvantages that would negate the spacing success.

The device itself has a cavity with a well-defined resonant frequency, which means that when they probe it with microwave photons at that frequency, the photons transmit through the cavity and are registered by a detector. The qubit itself is coupled to the cavity, which allows the researchers to determine if it is functioning or not: a functioning qubit changes the resonant frequency, and the number of photons detected goes down.

They probed their 3D integrated devices with the microwave photons, and when they expected their qubits to be working, they saw the expected signal. In other words, the new design did not negatively affect device performance.

“Even though there’s all this added complexity, the devices didn’t perform any worse than devices that are easier to make,” Holman says. “I think this work makes it conceivable to go to the next step with this technology, whereas before it was very tricky to imagine past a certain number of qubits.”

Holman emphasizes that this work does not solve all the design and functionality issues currently hampering the success of fully functional quantum computers.

“Even with all the resources and large industry teams working on this problem, it is non-trivial,” Holman says. “It’s exciting, but it’s a long-haul excitement. This work is one more piece of the puzzle.”

The article reports that this work was sponsored in part by the Army Research Office (ARO) under Grant Number W911NF-17-1-0274 (at UW­–Madison) and by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering under Air Force Contract No. FA8721-05-C-0002 (at MIT Lincoln Laboratory).