Research, teaching and outreach in Physics at UW–Madison
Flexible, easy-to-scale nanoribbons move graphene toward use in tech applications
From radio to television to the internet, telecommunications transmissions are simply information carried on light waves and converted to electrical signals.
Silicon-based fiber optics are currently the best structures for high-speed, long distance transmissions, but graphene — an all-carbon, ultra-thin and adaptable material — could improve performance even more.
In a study published April 16 in ACS Photonics, University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers fabricated graphene into the smallest ribbon structures to date using a method that makes scaling-up simple. In tests with these tiny ribbons, the scientists discovered they were closing in on the properties they needed to move graphene toward usefulness in telecommunications equipment.
“Previous research suggested that to be viable for telecommunication technologies, graphene would need to be structured prohibitively small over large areas, (which is) a fabrication nightmare,” says Joel Siegel, a UW–Madison graduate student in physics professor Victor Brar’s group and co-lead author of the study. “In our study, we created a scalable fabrication technique to make the smallest graphene ribbon structures yet and found that with modest further reductions in ribbon width, we can start getting to telecommunications range.”
University of Wisconsin–Madison physics professor Victor Brar has been named a 2021 Sloan Research Fellow, a competitive award given to researchers in the early stages of their careers.
“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a Fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”
Brar’s research focuses on developing new microscopy techniques to look at quantum systems in ways that current microscopes cannot. Applying these techniques to study defects in materials — where a perfect crystal lattice is disrupted by one or more anomalous atoms — could lead to improvements in quantum computer performance or the discovery of new Physics.
“Everyone in the world is trying to make a quantum computer, but we don’t really have good diagnostics for what all the quantum systems are inside of a material,” Brar says. “One goal with this microscope is to figure out what’s in a material that could interfere with a quantum computer.”
Additionally, Brar hopes that by applying this technique to complex materials, new particles may be identified and studied. For example, many particle physics discoveries, such as the Higgs boson and the positron, have been first theorized based on materials science research and repurposed into high energy physics experiments.
“At CERN, for example, they try to get to higher and higher energies to see particles, and at some point CERN just can’t get high enough,” Brar explains. “But in a material, you can get analogous particles for what CERN scientists are looking for but at much lower energies. There are particles that we’ve never seen outside of a material, but we can see them in a material, and those are the kinds of things that we’d ideally like to study.”
The technique that Brar is developing combines optical and electron microscopy, two methods he worked on as a graduate student and post-doc. By bringing them together now, he hopes that his unique method will bring significant advances to his field — and that the Sloan Fellowship indicates that other scientists agree.
“The Sloan award has a history behind it, and they have a track record of funding good science,” Brar says. “So, it means a lot to be recognized by Sloan and I hope it will help when we start to try to make our case for why this method is important.”
The Sloan Research Fellowship is open to early-career scientists in one of eight fields, including physics. More than 1000 researchers are nominated each year for 128 fellowship slots. Winners receive a two-year, $75,000 fellowship which can be spent to advance the fellow’s research.
“Prof. Victor Brar winning the Sloan Foundation Fellowship is a very welcome recognition,” says Sridhara Dasu, chair of the UW–Madison physics department. “For decades now, the Sloan Fellowship is a highly sought-after honor amongst young scientists, and it is wonderful to note that our enthusiasm and confidence in Prof. Brar’s research prowess is recognized by an international panel selecting the Sloan Fellows.”
Shimon Kolkowitz awarded two grants to push optical atomic clocks past the standard quantum limit
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.
“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.
Q-NEXT collaboration awarded National Quantum Initiative funding
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.”
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.”
“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.”
UW–Madison named member of new $25 million Midwest quantum science institute
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.”