Research, teaching and outreach in Physics at UW–Madison
Ben Woods and team named finalists in 2023 WARF Innovation Awards
Each fall the WARF Innovation Awards recognize some of the best inventions at UW–Madison. WARF receives hundreds of new invention disclosures each year. Of these disclosures, the WARF Innovation Award finalists are considered exceptional in the following criteria:
Has potential for high long-term impact
Presents an exciting solution to a known important problem
Could produce broad benefits for humankind
One of the six finalists comes from Physics. Research Associate Benjamin Woods and a team including Distinguished Scientist Mark Friesen, John Bardeen Prof. of Physics Mark Eriksson, Honorary Associate Robert Joynt, and Graduate Student Emily Joseph developed a quantum device that shows a significant increase in valley splitting, a key property needed for error-free quantum computing. The device features a novel structural composition that turns conventional wisdom on its head.
Two winners, selected from the six finalists, will be announced in WARF’s annual holiday greeting; sign up to receive the greeting here. Each of the two Innovation Award winners receive $10,000, split among UW inventors.
“Sandwich” structure found to reduce errors caused by quasiparticles in superconducting qubits
Qubits are notoriously more prone to error than their classical counterparts. While superconducting quantum computers currently use on the order of 100 to 1000 qubits, an estimated one million qubits will be needed to track and correct errors in a quantum computer designed for real-world applications. At present, it is not known how to scale superconducting qubit circuits to this size.
In a new study published in PRX Quantum, UW–Madison physicists from Robert McDermott’s group developed and tested a new superconducting qubit architecture that is potentially more scalable than the current state of the art. Control of the qubits is achieved via “Single Flux Quantum” (SFQ) pulses that can be generated close to the qubit chip. They found that SFQ-based control fidelity improved ten-fold over their previous versions, providing a promising platform for scaling up the number of qubits in a quantum array.
The architecture involves a sandwich of two chips: one chip houses the qubits, while the other contains the SFQ control unit. The new approach suppresses the generation of quasiparticles, which are disruptions in the superconducting ground state that degrade qubit performance.
“This structure physically separates the two units, and quasiparticles on the SFQ chip cannot diffuse to the quantum chip and generate errors,” explains Chuan-Hong Liu, PhD ’23, a former UW–Madison physics graduate student and lead author of the study. “This design is totally new, and it greatly improves our gate fidelities.”
Liu and his colleagues assessed the fidelity of SFQ-based gates through randomized benchmarking. In this approach, the team established operating parameters to maximize the overall fidelity of complex control sequences. For instance, for a qubit that begins in the ground state, they performed long sequences incorporating many gates that should be equivalent to an identity operation; in the end, they measured the fraction of the population remaining in the ground state. A higher measured ground state population indicated higher gate fidelity.
Inevitably, there are residual errors, but the reduced quasiparticle poisoning was expected to lower the error rate and improve gate fidelities — and it did.
“Most of the gates had 99% fidelity,” Liu says. “That’s a one order of magnitude reduction in infidelity compared to the last generation.”
Importantly, they showed the stability of the SFQ-based gates over the course of a six-hour experimental run.
Later in the study, the researchers investigated the source of the remaining errors. They found that the SFQ unit was emitting photons with sufficient energy to create quasiparticles on the qubit chip. With the unique source of the error identified, Liu and his colleagues can develop ways to improve the design.
“We realized this quasiparticle generation is due to spurious antenna coupling between the SFQ units and the qubit units,” Liu says. “This is really interesting because we usually talk about qubits in the range of one to ten gigahertz, but this error is in the 100 to 1000 gigahertz range. This is an area people have never explored, and we provide a straightforward way to make improvements.”
This study is a collaboration between the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Syracuse University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and UW–Madison.
This work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1747426); the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) Accelerator; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA-20001-D2022-2203120004); and the NIST Program on Scalable Superconducting Computing and the National Nuclear Security Administration Advanced Simulation and Computing Beyond Moore’s Law program (LLNL-ABS-795437).
Physics has three winners in the Cool Science Image contest!
The winners of the UW–Madison 13th annual Cool Science Image contest were announced, and Physics has three winners! Our winners include graduate student Jacob Scott, the graduate student-professor pairing of Jimena González and Keith Bechtol, and alum Aedan Gardill, PhD ’23. Their winning images are below.
A panel of experienced artists, scientists and science communicators chose 12 winning images based on the aesthetic, creative and scientific qualities that distinguished them from scores of entries. The winning entries showcase the research, innovation, scholarship and curiosity of the UW–Madison community through visual representations of socioeconomic strata, brain cells snuffed out in Parkinson’s disease, the tangle of technology required to equip a quantum computing lab and a bug-eyed frog that opened students’ eyes to the world.
The winning images go on display this week in an exhibit at the McPherson Eye Research Institute’s Mandelbaum and Albert Family Vision Gallery on the ninth floor of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, 111 Highland Ave. The exhibit, which runs through the end of 2023, opens with a public reception at the gallery Thursday, Sept. 28, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The exhibit also includes historical images of UW science, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the University of Wisconsin’s founding.
The Cool Science Image Contest recognizes the technical and creative skills required to capture and create images, videos and other media that reveal something about science or nature while also leaving an impression with their beauty or ability to induce wonder. The contest is sponsored by Madison’s Promega Corp., with additional support from UW–Madison’s Office of University Communications.
Partnerships bring together UW–Madison quantum computing research, industry leaders
Two leading companies in semiconductor quantum computing are partnering with researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, itself a long-time academic leader in quantum computing.
UW–Madison’s separate partnerships with Intel and HRL Laboratories are part of a first round of collaborations announced June 14 by the LPS Qubit Collaboratory (LQC), a national Quantum Information Science Research Center hosted at the Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS). Established in support of the National Quantum Initiative Act, LQC is facilitating partnerships between industry and academic and national labs to advance research in quantum information science.
“These collaborations are great examples of UW–Madison partnering with industry on the development of important technologies, in this case semiconductor quantum computers,” says physics professor Mark Eriksson, the UW–Madison lead on the partnerships.
Welcome, Roman Kuzmin, the Dunson Cheng Assistant Professor of Physics
In the modern, cutting-edge field of quantum computing, it can be a bit puzzling to hear a researcher relate their work to low-tech slide rules. Yet that is exactly the analogy that Roman Kuzmin uses to describe one of his research goals, creating quantum simulators to model various materials. He also studies superconducting qubits and ways to increase coherence in this class of quantum computer.
Kuzmin, a quantum information and condensed matter scientist, will join the department as an the Dunson Cheng Assistant Professor of Physics on January 1. He is currently a research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute in College Park, Md, and recently joined us for an interview.
Can you please give an overview of your research?
My main fields are quantum information and condensed matter physics. For example, one of my interests is to solve complicated condensed matter problems using new techniques and materials which quantum information science developed. Also, it works in the other direction. I am also trying to improve materials which are used in quantum information. I work in the subfield of superconducting circuits. There are several different directions in quantum information, and the physics department at Wisconsin has many of them already, so I will complement work in the department.
Once you’re in Madison and your lab is up and running, what are the first big one or two big thingsyou want to really focus your energy on?
One is in quantum information and quantum computing. So, qubits are artificial atoms or building blocks of a quantum computer. I’m simplifying it, of course, but there are environments which try to destroy coherence. In order to scale up those qubits and make quantum computers larger and larger — because that’s what you need eventually to solve anything, to do something useful with it — you need to mitigate decoherence processes which basically prevent qubits from working long enough. So, I will look at the sources of those decoherence processes and try to make qubits live longer and be longer coherent.
A second project is more on the condensed matter part. I will build very large circuits out of Josephson junctions, inductors and capacitors, and such large circuits behave like some many-body objects. It creates a problem which is very hard to solve because it contains many parts, and these parts interact with each other such that the problem is much more complicated than just the sum of those parts.
What are some applications of your work?
Of course this work is interesting for developing theory and understanding our world. But the application, for example for the many-body system I just described, it’s called the quantum impurity. One of my goals is to use this to create a simulator which can potentially model some useful material. It’s like if you have a quantum computer, you can write a program and it will solve something for you. A slide rule is a physical device that allows you to do complicated, logarithmic calculations, but it’s designed to do only this one calculation. I’m creating kind of a quantum slide rule.
What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle?
So, I have my favorite circuit element: Josephson junction. (editor’s note: the question did not specify atomic element, so we appreciate this clever answer!). And for elementary particle, the photon, especially microwave photons, because that’s what I use in these circuits to do simulations. They’re very versatile and they’re just cool.
What hobbies and interests do you have?
I like reading, travelling, and juggling.
Margaret Fortman awarded Google quantum computing fellowship
Two UW–Madison graduate students, including physics grad student Margaret Fortman, have been awarded 2022 Google Fellowships to pursue cutting-edge research. Fortman received the 2022 Google Fellowship in Quantum Computing, one of only four awarded.
Google created the PhD Fellowship Program to recognize outstanding graduate students doing exceptional and innovative research in areas relevant to computer science and related fields. The fellowship attracts highly competitive applicants from around the world.
“These awards have been presented to exemplary PhD students in computer science and related fields,” Google said in its announcement. “We have given these students unique fellowships to acknowledge their contributions to their areas of specialty and provide funding for their education and research. We look forward to working closely with them as they continue to become leaders in their respective fields.”
The program begins in July when students are connected to a mentor from Google Research. The fellowship covers full tuition, fees, and a stipend for the academic year. Fellows are also encouraged to attend Google’s annual Global Fellowship Summit in the summer.
Fortman works to diagnose noise interference in quantum bits
Fortman, whose PhD research in Victor Brar’s group specializes in quantum computing, will use the fellowship support to develop a diagnostic tool to probe the source of noise in superconducting quantum bits, or qubits.
Quantum computing has the potential to solve problems that are difficult for standard computers, Fortman said, but the field has challenges to solve first.
“The leading candidate we have for making a quantum computer right now is superconducting qubits,” Fortman said. “But those are currently facing unavoidable noise that we get in those devices, which can actually come from the qubit material itself.”
Fortman works with a low-temperature ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope on the UW–Madison campus to develop a microscopic understanding of the origins of noise in qubits. She fabricates superconductors to examine under the microscope to identify the source of the noise, and hopefully be able to develop a solution for that interference.
In her time as a graduate student at UW–Madison, Fortman said she has enjoyed collaborating with colleagues in her lab and across campus.
“It’s pretty cool to be somewhere where world-renowned research is happening and to be involved with that,” she said. “My PI and I work in collaborations with other PIs at the university and they’re all doing very important research, and so it’s really cool to be a part of that.”
Fortman is excited to have a mentor at Google through the PhD Fellowship, having been paired with someone who has a similar disciplinary background and who is a research scientist with Google Quantum AI.
“He can be a resource in debugging some parts of my project, as well as general mentorship and advice on being a PhD student, and advice for future career goals,” Fortman said.
The second UW–Madison student who earned this honor is computer sciences PhD student Shashank Rajput, who received the 2022 Google Fellowship in Machine Learning.
Cross-institutional collaboration leads to new control over quantum dot qubits
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.”
Opening doors to quantum research experiences with the Open Quantum Initiative
This past winter, Katie Harrison, then a junior physics major at UW–Madison, started thinking about which areas of physics she was interested in studying more in-depth.
“Physics is in general so broad, saying you want to research physics doesn’t really cut it,” Harrison says.
She thought about which classes she enjoyed the most and talked to other students and professors to help figure out what she might focus on. Quantum mechanics was high on her list. During her search for additional learning opportunities, she saw the email about the Open Quantum Initiative (OQI), a new fellowship program run by the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE).
“This could be something I’m interested in, right?” Harrison thought. “I’ll apply and see what happens.”
What happened was that Harrison was one of 12 undergraduate students accepted into the inaugural class of OQI Fellows. These students were paired with mentors at CQE member institutions, where they conducted research in quantum science information and engineering. OQI has a goal of connecting students with leaders in academia and industry and increasing their awareness of quantum career opportunities. The ten-week Fellowship ran through August 19.
OQI also places an emphasis on establishing diversity, equity, and inclusion as priorities central to the development of the quantum ecosystem. Almost 70% of this year’s fellowship students are Hispanic, Latino, or Black, and half are the first in their family to go to college. In addition, while the field of quantum science and engineering is generally majority-male, the 2022 cohort is half female.
This summer, UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Quantum Institute hosted two students: Harrison with physics professor Baha Balantekin and postdoc Pooja Siwach; and MIT physics and electrical engineering major Kate Arutyunova with engineering physics professor Jennifer Choy, postdoc Maryam Zahedian and graduate student Ricardo Vidrio.
Harrison and Arutyunova met at OQI orientation at IBM’s quantum research lab in New York, and they hit it off immediately. (“We have the most matching energies (of the fellows),” Arutyunova says, with Harrison adding, “The synergy is real.”)
Despite their very different research projects — Harrison’s was theoretical and strongly focused on physics, whereas Arutyunova’s was experimental and with an engineering focus — they leaned on each other throughout the summer in Madison. They met at Union South nearly every morning at 7am to read and bounce ideas off each other. Then, after a full day with their respective research groups, they’d head back to Union South until it closed.
Modeling neutrino oscillations
Harrison’s research with Balantekin and Siwach investigated the neutrinos that escape collapsing supernovae cores. Neutrinos have a neutral charge and are relatively small particles, they make it out of cores without interacting with much — and therefore without changing much — so studying them helps physicists understand what is happening inside those stars. However, this is a difficult task because neutrinos oscillate between flavors, or different energy levels, and therefore require a lot of time and resources to calculate on a classical computer.
Harrison’s project, then, was to investigate two types of quantum computing methods, pulse vs circuit based, and determine if one might better fit their problem than the other. Previous studies suggest that pulsed based is likely to be better, but circuit based involves less complicated input calculations.
“I’ve been doing calibrations and calculating the frequencies of the pulses we’ll need to send to our qubits in order to get data that’s as accurate as a classical computer,” Harrison says. “I’m working with the circuit space, the mathematical versions of them, and then I’ll send my work to IBM’s quantum computers and they’ll calculate it and give results back.”
While she didn’t fully complete the project, she did make significant progress.
“(Katie) is very enthusiastic and she has gone a lot further than one would have expected an average undergraduate could have,” Balantekin says. “She started an interesting project, she started getting interesting results. But we are nowhere near the completion of the project, so she will continue working with us next academic year, and hopefully we’ll get interesting results.”
Developing better quantum sensors
Over on the engineering side of campus, Arutyunova was studying different ways to introduce nitrogen vacancy (NV) centers in diamonds. These atomic-scale defects are useful in quantum sensing and have applications in magnetometry. Previous work in Choy’s group made the NV centers by a method known as nitrogen ion beam implantation. Arutyunova’s project was to compare how a different method, electron beam irradiation, formed the NV centers under different starting nitrogen concentrations in diamond.
Briefly, she would mark an edge of a very tiny (2 x 2 x 0.5 millimeter), nitrogen-containing diamond, and irradiate the sample with a scanning electron microscope. She used confocal microscopy to record the initial distribution of NV centers, then moved the sample to the annealing step, where the diamond is heated up to 1200 celsius in a vacuum annealing furnace. The diamonds are then acid washed and reexamined with the confocal microscope to see if additional NV centers are formed.
“It’s a challenging process as it requires precise coordinate-by-coordinate calculation for exposed areas and extensive knowledge of how to use the scanning electron microscope,” says Arutyunova, who will go back to MIT after the fellowship wraps. “I think I laid down a good foundation for future steps so that the work can be continued in my group.”
Kate made significant strides in her project and her work has put us on a great path for our continued investigation into effective ways of generating color centers in diamond. In addition to her research contributions, our group has really enjoyed and benefited from her enthusiasm and collaborative spirit. It’s wonderful to see the relationships that Kate has forged with the rest of the group and in particular her mentors, Maryam and Ricardo. We look forward to keeping in touch with Kate on matters related to the project as well as her academic journey.
Beyond the summer fellowship
Both Harrison and Arutyunova think that this experience has drawn them to the graduate school track, likely with a focus on quantum science. More importantly, it has helped them both to learn what they like about research.
“I would prefer to work on a problem and see the final output rather than a question where I do not have an idea of the application,” Arutyunova says. “And I realized how much I like to collaborate with people, exchange ideas, propose something, and listen to people and what they think about research.”
They also offer similar advice to other undergraduate students who are interested in research: do it, and start early.
“No matter when you start, you’re going to start knowing nothing,” Harrison says. “And if you start sooner, even though it’s scary and you feel like you know even less, you have more time to learn, which is amazing. And get in a research group where they really want you to learn.”
Coherent light production found in very low optical density atomic clouds
No atom is an island, and scientists have known for decades that groups of atoms form communities that “talk” to each other. But there is still much to learn about how atoms — particularly energetically excited ones — interact in groups.
In a study published in PRX Quantum, physicists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison observed communication between atoms at lower and lower densities. They found that the atoms influence each other at 100 times lower densities than probed before, exhibiting slow decay rates and emitting coherent light.
“It seems that (low-density) groups of excited atoms spontaneously organize to then produce light that is coherent,” says David Gold, a postdoctoral fellow in Deniz Yavuz’s group and lead author of the study. “These findings are pretty interesting from a basic science standpoint, and in terms of quantum computing, the takeaway is that even with very low numbers of atoms, you can see significant amounts of (these effects).”
A well-established property of atoms is found in electron excitation: when a specific wavelength of light hits an atom of a specific element, an electron is excited to a higher orbital level. As that electron decays back to its initial state, a photon of a specific wavelength is emitted. A single atom has a characteristic decay rate for that process. When groups of atoms are studied, their interactions are observed: the initial decay rate is very fast, or superradiant, then transitions to a slower, or subradiant, rate.
Though well-established in dense clouds, this group-talk has never been studied in less dense clouds of atoms, which could have impacts on applications such as quantum computing.
In their first set of experiments, Gold and colleagues asked what the decay rate of lower-density clouds looked like. They supercooled the atoms in a cloud, hit them with an excitation laser, and recorded the decay rates as an intensity of emitted light over time. They observed the characteristic subradiance. In this case, they did not always see superradiance, likely due to the reduced number of atoms available to measure.
Next, they asked what happened if they let the cloud expand — or decrease in density — for varying periods of time before repeating their experiment. They found that as the cloud become less and less dense, the amount of subradiance decreased, until eventually a density was reached where the atoms stopped behaving like a group and instead displayed single-atom decay rates.
“The most subradiance that we observed was at around a hundred times lower optical density than it had previously been observed before,” Gold says.
Now that the researchers knew that a less dense cloud still decays subradiantly to a point, they asked if the decay was happening in an isolated manner, or if the atoms were really acting as a group. If acting as a group, the emitted light would be coherent, or more laser-like, with some structure between the atoms.
They used the same experimental setup but added an interferometer, where light is split and recombined before the photons are detected. They first set the baseline interference pattern by moving the mirror closer or further away from the splitter — changing the path length of one of the beams — and mapping the interference pattern of the split light waves that were emitted from the same atom.
If there were no relationship between the two atoms and the light they emit, then they would have expected to see no interference pattern. Instead, they saw that for some distance of mirror displacement, the lightwaves did interfere, indicating that different atoms being measured were nonetheless producing coherent light.
“I think this is the more exciting thing we found: that the light that’s being emitted is coherent and it has more of the properties of a laser than you would expect,” Gold says. “The atoms are influenced by each other and not in a way we would have expected.”
Aside from the interesting physics seen in the study, Gold says the work is also applicable to quantum computing, particularly as those computers grow bigger in the future.
“Even if everything in a quantum computer is running perfectly and the system was completely isolated, there’s still this inherent thing of, well, the atoms just might decay down from [the computational] state,” Gold says.
UW–Madison, industry partners run quantum algorithm on neutral atom quantum computer for the first time
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.