Shimon Kolkowitz awarded two grants to push optical atomic clocks past the standard quantum limit

a metalilc chamber with a blue glowing orb of illuminated atoms in the center

Optical atomic clocks are already the gold standard for precision timekeeping, keeping time so accurately that they would only lose one second every 14 billion years. Still, they could be made to be even more precise if they could be pushed past the current limits imposed on them by quantum mechanics.

With two new grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, UW–Madison physics professor Shimon Kolkowitz proposes to introduce quantum entanglement — where atoms interact with each other even when physically distant — to optical atomic clocks. The improved clocks would allow researchers to ask questions about fundamental physics, and they have applications in improving quantum computing and GPS.

Atomic clocks are so precise because they take advantage of the natural vibration frequencies of atoms, which are identical for all atoms of a particular element. These clocks operate at or near the standard quantum limit, a fundamental limit on performance imposed on clocks where the atoms are all independent of each other. The only way to push the clocks past that limit is to achieve entangled states, strange quantum states where the atoms are no longer independent and they become intertwined.

a cartoon showing the atoms in their pancakes as described in the text“That turns out to be hard for a number of reasons. Entanglement requires these atoms to interact with each other, but a good clock requires them not to interact with each other or anything else,” Kolkowitz says. “So, you need to engineer a situation where you can make the atoms interact strongly, but you can also switch those interactions off. And those are some of the same requirements that are necessary for quantum computing.”

Kolkowitz is already building an optical atomic clock in his lab, albeit one that is not yet using entangled states. To make the clock, they first laser-cool strontium atoms to one millionth of one degree Celsius above absolute zero, then load the atoms into an optical lattice. In the lattice, the atoms are separated into what is effectively a tiny stack of pancakes — each atom can move around within their own flat disk, but they cannot jump into another pancake.

Though the atoms’ are stuck in their own pancake, they can interact with each other if their electrons are highly excited. This type of atom, known as Rydberg atoms, becomes close to one million times larger than an unexcited counterpart because the excited electron can be microns away from the nucleus.

“It’s kind of crazy that a single atom can be that big, and when you make them that much bigger, they interact much more strongly with each other than they do in their ground states,” Kolkowitz says. “Basically it means you can go from the atoms not interacting at all to interacting very strongly. That’s exactly what you want for quantum computing, and it’s what you want for this atomic clock.”

With the two ARO grants, Kolkowitz expects to generate Rydberg atoms in his lab’s atomic clock. One of the grants, a Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP), will fund the specialized UV laser that generates the high energy photons needed to excite the atoms into the highly excited Rydberg states. The second grant will fund personnel and other supplies. Kolkowitz will collaborate with UW–Madison physics professor Mark Saffman, who, along with physics professor Thad Walker, pioneered the use of Rydberg atoms for quantum computing.

In addition to being useful for developing new approaches to ask questions about fundamental physics in his research lab, these ultraprecise atomic clocks are of interest to the Department of Defense for atomic clock-based technologies such as GPS, and because they can be used to precisely map Earth’s gravity.

Researchers awarded Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Grant

Three UW–Madison physics professors and their colleagues have been awarded a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) High Energy Physics Quantum Information Science award for an interdisciplinary collaboration between theoretical and experimental physicists and experts on quantum algorithms.

The grant, entitled “Detection of dark matter and neutrinos enhanced through quantum information,” will bring a total of $2.3 million directly to UW-Madison. Physics faculty include principal investigator Baha Balantekin as well as Mark Saffman, and Sue Coppersmith. Collaborators on the grant include Kim Palladino at the University of Oxford, Peter Love at Tufts University, and Calvin Johnson at San Diego State University.

With the funding, the researchers plan to use a quantum simulator to calculate the detector response to dark matter particles and neutrinos. The simulator to be used is an array of 121 neutral atom qubits currently being developed by Saffman’s group. Much of the research plan is to understand and mitigate the behavior of the neutral atom array so that high accuracy and precision calculations can be performed. The primary goal of this project is to apply lessons from the quantum information theory in high energy physics, while a secondary goal is to contribute to the development of quantum information theory itself.

Mark Friesen promoted to Distinguished Scientist

profile photo of Mark Friesen
profile photo of Mark Friesen
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!

Q-NEXT collaboration awarded National Quantum Initiative funding

the tip of a scanning electron microscope is poised over a setup with metal clips pointing out

The University of Wisconsin–Madison solidified its standing as a leader in the field of quantum information science when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the White House announced the Q-NEXT collaboration as a funded Quantum Information Science Research Center through the National Quantum Initiative Act. The five-year, $115 million collaboration was one of five Centers announced today.

Q-NEXT, a next-generation quantum science and engineering collaboration led by the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, brings together nearly 100 world-class researchers from three national laboratories, 10 universities including UW–Madison, and 10 leading U.S. technology companies to develop the science and technology to control and distribute quantum information.

“The main goals for Q-NEXT are first to deliver quantum interconnects — to find ways to quantum mechanically connect distant objects,” says Mark Eriksson, the John Bardeen Professor of Physics at UW–Madison and a Q-NEXT thrust lead. “And next, to establish a national resource to both develop and provide pristine materials for quantum science and technology.”

profile photo of Mark Eriksson
Mark Eriksson

Q-NEXT will focus on three core quantum technologies:

  • Communication for the transmission of quantum information across long distances using quantum repeaters, enabling the establishment of “unhackable” networks for information transfer
  • Sensors that achieve unprecedented sensitivities with transformational applications in physics, materials, and life sciences
  • Processing and utilizing “test beds” both for quantum simulators and future full-stack universal quantum computers with applications in quantum simulations, cryptanalysis, and logistics optimization.

Eriksson is leading the Materials and Integration thrust, one of six Q-NEXT focus areas that features researchers from across the collaboration. This thrust aims to: develop high-coherence materials, including for silicon and superconducting qubits, which is an essential component of preserving entanglement; develop a silicon-based optical quantum memory, which is important in developing a quantum repeater; and improve color-center quantum bits, which are used in both communication and sensing.

“One of the key goals in Materials and Integration is to not just improve the materials but also to improve how you integrate those materials together so that in the end, quantum devices maintain coherence and preserve entanglement,” Eriksson says. “The integration part of the name is really important. You may have a material that on its own is really good at preserving coherence, yet you only make something useful when you integrate materials together.”

Six other UW­–Madison and Wisconsin Quantum Institute faculty members are Q-NEXT investigators: physics professors Victor Brar, Shimon Kolkowitz, Robert McDermott, and Mark Saffman, electrical and computer engineering professor Mikhail Kats, and chemistry professor Randall Goldsmith. UW–Madison researchers are involved in five of the six research thrusts.

“I’m excited about Q-NEXT because of the connections and collaborations it provides to national labs, other universities, and industry partners,” Eriksson says. “When you’re talking about research, it’s those connections that often lead to the breakthroughs.

The potential impacts of Q-NEXT research include the creation of a first-ever National Quantum Devices Database that will promote the development and fabrication of next generation quantum devices as well as the development of the components and systems that enable quantum communications across distances ranging from microns to kilometers.

“This funding helps ensure that the Q-NEXT collaboration will lead the way in future developments in quantum science and engineering,” says Steve Ackerman, UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “Q-NEXT is the epitome of the Wisconsin Idea as we work together to transfer new quantum technologies to the marketplace and support U.S. economic competitiveness in this growing field.”

infographic of all q-next partner national labs, universities, and industry
The Q-NEXT partners

New study expands types of physics, engineering problems that can be solved by quantum computers

A well-known quantum algorithm that is useful in studying and solving problems in quantum physics can be applied to problems in classical physics, according to a new study in the journal Physical Review A from University of Wisconsin–Madison assistant professor of physics Jeff Parker.

Quantum algorithms – a set of calculations that are run on a quantum computer as opposed to a classical computer – used for solving problems in physics have mainly focused on questions in quantum physics. The new applications include a range of problems common to physics and engineering, and expands on the types of questions that can be asked in those fields.

profile photo of Jeff Parker
Jeff Parker

“The reason we like quantum computers is that we think there are quantum algorithms that can solve certain kinds of problems very efficiently in ways that classical computers cannot,” Parker says. “This paper presents a new idea for a type of problem that has not been addressed directly in the literature before, but it can be solved efficiently using these same quantum computer types of algorithms.”

The type of problem Parker was investigating is known as generalized eigenvalue problems, which broadly describe trying to find the fundamental frequencies or modes of a system. Solving them is crucial to understanding common physics and engineering questions, such as the stability of a bridge’s design or, more in line with Parker’s research interests, the stability and efficiency of nuclear fusion reactors.

As the system being studied becomes more and more complex — more components moving throughout three-dimensional space — so does the numerical matrix that describes the problem. A simple eigenvalue problem can be solved with a pencil and paper, but researchers have developed computer algorithms to tackle increasingly complex ones. With the supercomputers available today, more and more difficult physics problems are finding solutions.

“If you want to solve a three-dimensional problem, it can be very complex, with a very complicated geometry,” Parker says. “You can do a lot on today’s supercomputers, but there tends to be a limit. Quantum algorithms may be able to break that limit.”

The specific quantum algorithm that Parker studied in this paper, known as quantum phase estimation, had been previously applied to so-called standard eigenvalue problems. However, no one had shown that they could be applied to the generalized eigenvalue problems that are also common in physics. Generalized eigenvalue problems introduce a second matrix that ups the mathematical complexity.

Parker took the quantum algorithm and extended it to generalized eigenvalue problems. He then looked to see what types of matrices could be used in this problem. If the matrix is sparse ­— meaning, if most of the numerical components that make it up are zero — it means this problem could be solved efficiently on a quantum computer.

The study shows that quantum algorithms could be applied to classical physics problems, such as nuclear fusion mirror machines. | Credit: Cary Forest

“What I showed is that there are certain types of generalized eigenvalue problems that do lead to a sparse matrix and therefore could be efficiently solved on a quantum computer,” Parker says. “This type includes the very natural problems that often occur in physics and engineering, so this study provides motivation for applying these quantum algorithms more to generalized eigenvalue problems, because it hasn’t been a big focus so far.”

Parker emphasizes that quantum computers are in their infancy, and these classical physics problems are still best approached through classical computer algorithms.

“This study provides a step in showing that the application of a quantum algorithm to classical physics problems can be useful in the future, and the main advance here is it shows very clearly another type of problem to which quantum algorithms can be applied,” Parker says.

The study was completed in collaboration with Ilon Joseph at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Funding support was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC52-07NA27344 and U.S. DOE Office of Fusion Energy Sciences “Quantum Leap for Fusion Energy Sciences” (FWP SCW1680).

UW–Madison named member of new $25 million Midwest quantum science institute

cartoon showing a quantum hardware network

As joint members of a Midwest quantum science collaboration, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the University of Chicago have been named partners in a National Science Foundation Quantum Leap Challenge Institute, NSF announced Tuesday.

The five-year, $25 million NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) was one of three in this first round of NSF Quantum Leap funding and helps establish the region as a major hub of quantum science. HQAN’s principal investigator, Brian DeMarco, is a professor of physics at UIUC. UW–Madison professor of physics Mark Saffman and University of Chicago engineering professor Hannes Bernien are co-principal investigators.

“HQAN is very much a regional institute that will allow us to accelerate in directions in which we’ve already been headed and to start new collaborative projects between departments at UW–Madison as well as between us, the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago.” says Saffman, who is also director of the Wisconsin Quantum Institute. “These flagship institutes are being established as part of the National Quantum Initiative Act that was funded by Congress, and it is a recognition of the strength of quantum information research at UW–Madison that we are among the first.”

Read the full story at https://news.wisc.edu/uw-madison-named-member-of-new-25-million-midwest-quantum-science-institute/

cartoon showing a quantum hardware network
In a hybrid quantum network, hardware for storing and processing quantum information is linked together. This design could be beneficial for applications that rely on distributed quantum computing resources. | Credit: E. Edwards, IQUIST