Cross-institutional collaboration leads to new control over quantum dot qubits

a greyscale image makes up the border of this square image, with a full-color square in the exact center. the image shows tiny tunnel-like features, all congregating in the middle

This story was originally published by the Chicago Quantum Exchange

Qubits are the building blocks of quantum computers, which have the potential to revolutionize many fields of research by solving problems that classical computers can’t.

But creating qubits that have the perfect quality necessary for quantum computing can be challenging.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, HRL Laboratories LLC, and University of New South Wales (UNSW) collaborated on a project to better control silicon quantum dot qubits, allowing for higher-quality fabrication and use in wider applications.

All three institutions are affiliated with the Chicago Quantum Exchange. The work was published in Physical Review Letters, and the lead author, J. P. Dodson, has recently transitioned from UW–Madison to HRL.

“Consistency is the thing we’re after here,” says Mark Friesen, Distinguished Scientist of Physics at UW–Madison and author on the paper.  “Our claim is that there is actually hope to create a very uniform array of dots that can be used as qubits.”

Sensitive quantum states

While classical computer bits use electric circuits to represent two possible values (0 and 1), qubits use two quantum states to represent 0 and 1, which allows them to take advantage of quantum phenomena like superposition to do powerful calculations.

Qubits can be constructed in different ways. One way to build a qubit is by fabricating a quantum dot, or a very, very small cage for electrons, formed within a silicon crystal. Unlike qubits made of single atoms, which are all naturally identical, quantum dot qubits are man-made—allowing researchers to customize them to different applications.

But one common wrench in the metaphorical gears of these silicon qubits is competition between different kinds of quantum states. Most qubits use “spin states” to represent 0 and 1, which rely on a uniquely quantum property called spin. But if the qubit has other kinds of quantum states with similar energies, those other states can interfere, making it difficult for scientists to effectively use the qubit.

In silicon quantum dots, the states that most often compete with the ones needed for computing are “valley states,” named for their locations on an energy graph—they exist in the “valleys” of the graph.

To have the most effective quantum dot qubit, the valley states of the dot must be controlled such that they do not interfere with the quantum information-carrying spin states. But the valley states are extremely sensitive; the quantum dots sit on a flat surface, and if there is even one extra atom on the surface underneath the quantum dot, the energies of the valley states change.

The study’s authors say these kinds of single-atom defects are pretty much “unavoidable,” so they found a way to control the valley states even in the presence of defects. By manipulating the voltage across the dot, the researchers found they could physically move the dot around the surface it sits on.

“The gate voltages allow you to move the dot across the interface it sits on by a few nanometers, and by doing that, you change its position relative to atomic-scale features,” says Mark Eriksson, John Bardeen Professor and chair of the UW–Madison physics department, who worked on the project. “That changes the energies of valley states in a controllable way.

“The take home message of this paper,” he says, “is that the energies of the valley states are not determined forever once you make a quantum dot. We can tune them, and that allows us to make better qubits that are going to make for better quantum computers.”

Building on academic and industry expertise

The host materials for the quantum dots are “grown” with precise layer composition. The process is extremely technical, and Friesen notes that Lisa Edge at HRL Laboratories is a world expert.

“It requires many decades of knowledge to be able to grow these devices properly,” says Friesen. “We have several years of collaborating with HRL, and they’re very good at making really high-quality materials available to us.”

The work also benefitted from the knowledge of Susan Coppersmith, a theorist previously at UW–Madison who moved to UNSW in 2018. Eriksson says the collaborative nature of the research was crucial to its success.

“This work, which gives us a lot of new knowledge about how to precisely control these qubits, could not have been done without our partners at HRL and UNSW,” says Eriksson. “There’s a strong sense of community in quantum science and technology, and that is really pushing the field forward.”

Mark Saffman named WARF professor

This post is adapted from the original

profile photo of Mark Saffman, posing in his lab with lots of wires and equipment
Mark Saffman

Thirty-two members of the University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty — including physics professor Mark Saffman — have been awarded fellowships from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education for 2022-23. The awardees span the four divisions on campus: arts and humanities, physical sciences, social sciences and biological sciences.

“These awards provide an opportunity for campus to recognize our outstanding faculty,” says Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “They highlight faculty efforts to support the research, teaching, outreach and public service missions of the university.”

The awards are possible due to the research efforts of UW–Madison faculty and staff. Technology that arises from these efforts is licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the income from successful licenses is returned to the OVCRGE, where it’s used to fund research activities and awards throughout the divisions on campus.

Mark Saffman was awarded a WARF professorship. These professorships come with $100,000 and honor faculty who have made major contributions to the advancement of knowledge, primarily through their research endeavors, but also as a result of their teaching and service activities. Award recipients choose the names associated with their professorships. Saffman, the Johannes Rydberg Professor of Physics and director of The Wisconsin Quantum Institute, first began work on atomic physics and initiated a long-term effort to develop quantum computers. He is known for his research as a leader in the ongoing development of atomic quantum computers based on the Rydberg blockade mechanism.

In addition, physics affiliate professor Mikhail Kats received a Romnes Faculty Fellowship.

UW–Madison, industry partners run quantum algorithm on neutral atom quantum computer for the first time

a quantum computing lab with lots and lots of wires and a main hardware piece in the center

A university-industry collaboration has successfully run a quantum algorithm on a type of quantum computer known as a cold atom quantum computer for the first time. The achievement by the team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin­–Madison, ColdQuanta and Riverlane brings quantum computing one step closer to being used in real-world applications. The work out of Mark Saffman’s group was published in Nature on April 20.

Read the joint press release

Read the press release tipsheet 

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).


Correlated errors in quantum computers emphasize need for design changes

Quantum computers could outperform classical computers at many tasks, but only if the errors that are an inevitable part of computational tasks are isolated rather than widespread events.

Now, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have found evidence that errors are correlated across an entire superconducting quantum computing chip — highlighting a problem that must be acknowledged and addressed in the quest for fault-tolerant quantum computers.

The researchers report their findings in a study published June 16 in the journal Nature, Importantly, their work also points to mitigation strategies.

“I think people have been approaching the problem of error correction in an overly optimistic way, blindly making the assumption that errors are not correlated,” says UW–Madison physics Professor Robert McDermott, senior author of the study. “Our experiments show absolutely that errors are correlated, but as we identify problems and develop a deep physical understanding, we’re going to find ways to work around them.”

Read the full story at

artist rendition of a 4-qubit chip with a dotted-line-like cosmic ray hitting it from out of the image frame, lighting up two neighboring qubits "red" to indicate they are affected by the cosmic ray's energy
In this artistic rendering, a high-energy cosmic ray hits the qubit chip, freeing up charge in the chip substrate that disrupts the state of neighboring qubits. 

Welcome, incoming MSPQC students! 

The UW–Madison Physics Department is pleased to welcome 18 students to the M.S. in Physics – Quantum Computing program. These students make up the third cohort to begin the program and are the largest entering class to date.  

“We are really pleased and proud that the MSPQC program continues to grow and prosper in its third year,” says Bob Joynt, MSPQC Program Director and professor of physics. “We look forward to providing a great experience for the class of 2021. A particular focus this year will be the formation of collaborative teams that will push forward research in quantum computing.” 

 Of note, three women are in the entering class, marking the first time that women have enrolled in MSPQC. Other facts and figures about this year’s cohort include: 

  • 11 students are coming directly from completing their Bachelors 
  • Three students have Master’s degrees 
  • Six students have at least four years of professional experience, and four of those students have over 10 years professional experience 
  • 15 are international students, and seven of those students have attended U.S. institutions for previous studies 
  • The students’ academic backgrounds include physics, astronomy, engineering, and business administration.  

The department is following University guidelines and is planning for students to join us in Madison this fall, with in-person instruction. Over the summer, students can attend optional virtual orientation sessions to prepare for the program.  

“The pandemic imposed restrictions on our admissions and recruitment activities which forced us to work virtually, but I believe these barriers made our programming more accessible and led to the most diverse and determined incoming cohort of MSPQC students to date,” says Jackson Kennedy, MSPQC coordinator. “Although I have been able to meet our incredibly talented students virtually, I cannot wait to greet them in-person this Fall as we celebrate a long-awaited return to campus.” 

In addition to Joynt, the department thanks the other faculty who serve on the MSPQC admissions committee — Alex Levchenko, Robert McDermott, Maxim Vavilov and Deniz Yavuz — for application review. We also thank Michelle Holland and Jackson Kennedy for organizing recruiting efforts.  

 The MSPQC program welcomed its first students in Fall 2019 – the first-ever class of students in the U.S. to enroll in a quantum computing M.S. degree program. The accelerated program was born out of a recognized need to rapidly train students for the quantum computing workforce and is designed to be completed in 12 months. It provides students with a thorough grounding in the new discipline of quantum information and quantum computing.  

names of students, UG institute and degree: Brooke Becker UW–Madison Computer Engineering Soyeon Choi Vanderbilt University Physics, Computer Science Manish Chowdhary Indian Institute of Technology Dhanbad Computer Application Hua Feng Dalian University of Technology Atomic and Molecular Physics Jacob Frederick University of Washington Computer Engineering Amol Gupta Delhi Technological University Computer Engineering Yucheng He Zhengzhou University Automation Xunyao Luo Lafayette College Physics and Neuroscience Arjun Puppala Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee Power Systems Engineering Evan Ritchie University of St Thomas - Minnesota Physics & Math Mubinjon Satymov New York City College of Technology - CUNY Applied Computational Physics Yen-An Shih National Cheng Kung University Computer Science Qianxu Wang University of Michigan Physics Jiaxi Xu UC-Berkeley Physics Anirudh Yadav Indian Institute of Technology Dhanbad Computer Science Yukun Yang Nanjing University Astronomy Jin Zhang UW–Madison Physics & Philosophy Lin Zhao UW–Madison Computer Science and Physics
The incoming 2021 class of MSPQC students

Congratulations to Professor Sue Coppersmith on her retirement!

With the best of wishes — and some sadness — the Department of Physics says “Happy Retirement” to Professor Sue Coppersmith. Her last day at UW–Madison was February 14.

Coppersmith, the Robert E. Fassnacht Professor of Physics, joined the department in 2001. Prior to coming to UW–Madison, she earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University, conducting her thesis work at Bell Labs. She completed a postdoc at Brookhaven National Lab, then worked at Bell Labs for eight years before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago.

profile photo of Susan Coppersmith
Sue Coppersmith

During her tenure here, she served as Department Chair for one three-year term, and earned recognition as a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society. 

Scientific Achievements

At UChicago, Coppersmith’s research focused on soft matter physics and non-linear dynamics, work that she continued at UW–Madison, primarily with Prof. Pupa Gilbert. But her research program largely shifted over the years into quantum computing, an area that was just getting started when she started in Madison..

“At the time, I would tell people what we were doing, and of course nothing was working yet, and people would say, ‘Well, that’s all crap, isn’t it?’” Coppersmith recalls. “So, it was really fun to go from a time where there was nothing working, to now we have qubits, and being a part of the effort and feeling like I was helping.” 

Coppersmith describes herself as a theorist who went into the lab every day to better understand the experimental side of quantum computing, And, she says, UW–Madison stands out as one of the universities where theory and experiment are so closely tied together. Here, she frequently collaborated with Prof. Mark Eriksson and Distinguished Scientist Mark Friesen. 

“She just comes up with a lot of ideas, and what matters most is how many of them are home runs. She had an unusually large number,” Eriksson says. “She came up with the idea for a brand new qubit, the quantum dot hybrid qubit, and we’re still working on it to this day in my lab. And other people around the world have picked it up.”

Friesen adds:

“As a researcher, Sue is highly intuitive and focused more on the high-level physical picture rather than specific technical details. She typically breaks a problem down to a ‘minimal model’ that captures its basic physics. She has studied a wide variety of problems in her career, for which she is highly respected in many different communities, and she is able to apply lessons learned from one area to another. Her memory is legendary! She is also known for her quickness, both in being able to understand a problem (and how it fits into the big picture) and being able to immediately respond to it. I also say this in a good way: she is not shy about expressing her opinions.”

Legacy as Department Chair

Perhaps equal to her scientific achievements is the mark Coppersmith made on the department during her time as Chair, from 2005-08. The Department was hiring three faculty positions, and she reasoned that if eight offers were made, at worst four people would accept. 

“But eight people came! And I was famous for it because I ruined the College’s budget,” Coppersmith says. “I think this is the highlight of my Chair career. I loved recruiting people.”

There are a number of factors that go into faculty candidates accepting or not accepting offers, but Eriksson is certain that Coppersmith‘s ability to recruit was a significant one.

“They came in large part because Sue understood and was able to get them to explain and she was able to hear what they really needed, and then go deliver on it,” Eriksson says. “It’s one thing to have any subset of those skills, but she has the whole package.”

Current Department Chair Sridhara Dasu credits Coppersmith with shaping the direction of the department in all areas of physics, adding, “Her tenure continues to be an inspiration for all chairs of the department who followed her.”

five people stand in the foreground with a mountain in the background in Rio de Janeiro
Sue with a group of close collaborators from around the world, at a meeting that she arranged in Rio de Janeiro.

Mentorship of students and colleagues

Coppersmith’s mentorship of junior colleagues and students will also be missed. Both Friesen and Susan Nossal, senior scientist and director of the Physics Learning Center, noted that Coppersmith’s support has been crucial to their success as researchers in the department. They both applauded her as a champion of women and girls in science, citing her participation – with Nossal, Gilbert and several graduate students – in the annual Expanding Your Horizons event at which middle school girls participate in fun, hands-on science activities. 

“As a mentor, she is highly dedicated to her students and colleagues,” says Friesen, who co-advised several students with Coppersmith. “For me personally, she has been very supportive of my career path, helping me to obtain promotions and advancements, and providing on-point advice.”

Adds Nossal: “As a scientist, you have your ups and downs, and she helped me through some of the downs. It’s always helpful to have people who believe in you, and she helped me in persisting as a scientist.” 

Looking forward

Between Coppersmith and everyone else mentioned in this piece, there were certainly plenty of stories that could be shared. But for now, we’ll let emeritus professor Lou Bruch sum up Coppersmith’s tenacity and well-placed ambition with this anecdote:

“Sue touted the usefulness of the Mathematica package and would at times get into competition on speed of getting to the answer — her using the package and me using ad hoc analyses. I recall only one instance where I won.”

Coppersmith may be retired from UW–Madison, but she is not retiring from science. She is currently Professor and Head of the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where she will continue her research and collaborations with colleagues here and around the world.

“Wisconsin was so good to me. The people are so nice, and we did good work,” Coppersmith says. “I like to feel that I contributed in a positive way. I’ll always be grateful.”

Mark Friesen promoted to Distinguished Scientist

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Mark Friesen

Congratulations to Mark Friesen on his promotion to Distinguished Scientist! The distinguished title is the highest title available to an academic staff member at UW–Madison.

Friesen joined the physics department in 2004 as an associate scientist, and has been with UW–Madison since 1998, when he began a postdoc in the Materials Sciences and Engineering department. His main research effort at UW–Madison has been related to silicon quantum dot quantum computing, in collaboration with physics professors Mark Eriksson, Sue Coppersmith, Bob Joynt, Maxim Vavilov, and others.

Friesen says his most important achievement in the department is serving as a research advisor: In 16 years with UW–Madison physics, he has advised or co-advised six postdocs, 11 Ph.D. theses, four current Ph.D. students, two M.S. theses, and several undergraduate research projects. He also has 123 peer-reviewed publications and five U.S. patents, and serves as a consultant for ColdQuanta, a quantum computing company.

“Mark is known around the world for his expertise in semiconductor-based quantum computing,” Mark Eriksson says. “He is especially well known for his calculations on how the band structure in silicon interacts with interfaces to determine the quantum states for electrons in silicon-based quantum devices.”

Congrats, Mark Friesen, on this well-deserved honor!

Chuanhong (Vincent) Liu named to Fall 2020 cohort of the Quantum Information Science and Engineering Network (QISE-NET)

Graduate student Chuanhong (Vincent) Liu (McDermott Group) has had his project awarded funding through QISE-NET, the Quantum Information Science and Engineering Network. Run through the University of Chicago, QISE-NET is open to any student pursuing an advanced degree in any field of quantum science. Liu and other students in his cohort earn up to three years of support, including funding, mentoring and training at annual workshops. All awardees are paired with a mentoring QISE company or national lab, at which they will complete part of their projects. Liu describes his project, below. Cecilia Vollbrecht, a grad student in Chemistry, also earned this honor. Both Liu and Volbrecht are students in the Wisconsin Quantum Institute.

The Single Flux Quantum (SFQ) digital logic family has been proposed as a scalable approach for the control of next-generation multiqubit arrays. With NIST’s strong track record in the field of SFQ digital logic and the expertise of McDermott’s lab in the superconducting qubit area, we expect to achieve high fidelity SFQ-based qubit control. The successful completion of this research program will represent a major step forward in the development of a scalable quantum-classical interface, a critical component of a fully error-corrected fault-tolerant quantum computer.

Robert McDermott elected Fellow of the American Physical Society

profile photo of Robert McDermott
Robert McDermott

Congratulations to Prof. Robert McDermott, who was elected a 2020 Fellow of the American Physical Society! He was elected for seminal contributions to quantum computing with superconducting qubits, including elucidating the origins of decoherence mechanisms, and development of new qubit control and readout methods. He was nominated by the Division of Quantum Information.

APS Fellowship is a distinct honor signifying recognition by one’s professional peers for outstanding contributions to physics. Each year, no more than one half of one percent of the Society’s membership is recognized by this honor.

See the full list of 2020 honorees at the APS Fellows archive.