Quantum center unites Virginia Tech’s broad expertise in a vital field
As Virginia Tech’s research programs continue to expand this year, one source of momentum driving new discoveries and forging ingenious solutions to stubborn problems will be a new center dedicated to quantum research. Virginia Tech President Tim Sands announced the creation of the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering at the 2022 State of the University address.
“The remarkable talent and expertise on this campus gives Virginia Tech the potential — and the responsibility — to address the most significant research questions unfolding in an increasingly interconnected and interdisciplinary world,” Sands said. “Quantum science and engineering will shape our interactions with technology for decades. By investing in this center, providing support and resources and lowering barriers to discovery and collaboration, we will enable our researchers to tackle these formidable challenges from a collaborative, transdisciplinary perspective and have a meaningful impact on quality of life in the U.S. and around the world.”
Sophia Economou, a professor of physics and Hassinger Senior Fellow of Physics in the College of Science, will direct the center. Economou is an expert on quantum information science and a member of the Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage, a Department of Energy center led by Brookhaven National Lab.
The center creates an official umbrella for work that has flourished at Virginia Tech for many years. The university has been at the forefront of the emergence and evolution of quantum information science, producing research in key areas including quantum computing, networking, materials, and cryptography, and helping set research agendas through NSF-sponsored workshops and faculty collaborations with national laboratories.
In November 2021, Northrop Grumman, a longstanding strategic partner of Virginia Tech, committed $12.5 million to found the Center for Quantum Architecture and Software Development at the Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia. That center will complement the broad range of ongoing work in Blacksburg by building substantial research capabilities with targeted investments in coding and software.
Quantum mechanics is the framework that governs the murky, counterintuitive behavior of particles at atomic and subatomic scales and ultimately determines how information can be stored, manipulated, and shared. Today, quantum mechanics has merged with branches of information science to create a field we now know as quantum information science and engineering, and research once solely in the domain of physics now extends into computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and materials science. This expansive field is driving applications that address some of the world’s thorniest technical challenges and has captured the attention of businesses, funding agencies, and governments.
Experts have suggested that advances in quantum will eventually be able to break the cryptosystem that currently encodes transactions over the internet — but can also enable unbreakable cybersecurity for sensitive information. Quantum computers could facilitate drug discovery through molecular simulations beyond the reach of existing technology.
In the U.S., quantum has attracted massive bipartisan support. The National Quantum Initiative, passed unanimously in 2019, sparked a flurry of new programs from federal agencies, many of which had already been ramping up activity in this area. Federal funding for research in quantum information science has nearly doubled since 2019; agencies participating in the National Quantum Initiative have collectively requested nearly $1 billion for the current fiscal year. The National Science Foundation and Department of Energy have launched new centers around the country. The Department of Defense lists quantum information science as one of their modernization priorities, and additional congressional proposals, including three new Senate bills in the last year, illustrate the urgency of prioritizing substantial funding for this research.
In the private sector, a bevy of startups have emerged around the world. In addition to Northrop Grumman, other major tech, security, and defense companies, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, Raytheon, and others are making significant investments in quantum.
The federal government has also established the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, a group of stakeholders — including Virginia Tech — working to enable and grow the U.S. quantum industry.
In this rapidly expanding, and increasingly crucial, research landscape, the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering in Blacksburg solidifies Virginia Tech’s role.
“Quantum is one of our four Research Frontiers because it has potential to maximize the impact Virginia Tech research can have at regional, national, and global scales,” said Dan Sui, senior vice president for research and innovation. “With the establishment of this center, Virginia Tech is well positioned to better organize its interdisciplinary expertise to advance the quantum frontier. The convergence of fundamental concepts and practical applications is a core part of our research culture, and that mindset, along with the expertise and partnerships of our faculty, will allow us to accelerate discoveries, promote applications, and propel commercialization.”
The sixteen College of Science and College of Engineering faculty who will make up the center’s initial cohort have strong track records of funding and publications and a robust network of connections to companies, centers, and national labs working in quantum information science. Two members of the center’s leadership team, Nicholas Mayhall and Ed Barnes, have won prestigious NSF CAREER awards for their quantum work and are each leading large team projects funded by grants from the Department of Energy.
Virginia Tech also has one of the first Quantum Information Science and Engineering minors in the country, with the first cohort of students enrolling last fall. A graduate program is in development.
“Virginia Tech has an incredible concentration of faculty already doing world-renowned research across some of the most important frontiers in quantum information science,” Economou said. “The potential is there. I’m excited to see how rapidly our understanding of quantum phenomena, and our ability to harness it for new applications, will expand when scientists and engineers pool our expertise and deepen our partnerships.”
Since joining Virginia Tech in 2015, Economou has won more than $15 million in federal funding, authored more than 55 peer-reviewed journal articles, and given more than 80 invited talks. In addition to her role at the Department of Energy’s Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage, where she is engaged in two research thrusts, is on the cross-cutting codesign team, and leads a subcommittee on K-12 outreach, she is also the newly elected vice chair of the Division of Quantum Information of the American Physical Society. As the director of the new Virginia Tech center, she will be assisted in leading its research efforts by an executive team of six faculty members across the College of Science and the College of Engineering.
The formal structure of the center will strengthen Virginia Tech proposals for large center-scale grants and raise the visibility of this work, facilitating new partnerships and attracting faculty and students at the forefront of quantum research. The center will act as a hub for connections with groups like the National Security Institute, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, the Innovation Campus, and the Corporate Research Center, all of whom are investing in quantum research and infrastructure.
The center will be administratively housed under the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), a research investment institute headed by Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering.
“Virginia Tech is rich with pockets of expertise that have the potential to make an enormous impact,” Duma said. “Our role as an investment institute is to identify those projects and strategically direct resources to them. We’ve repeatedly found that the structure of a center, which facilitates targeted investments in talent and equipment, creates a pathway toward national and even international visibility and leadership in areas where we’ve always had great strength. This is what we have with our excellent faculty in the quantum space.”
Startup funds from the Office of Research and Innovation and ICTAS will support the center for the first three years, augmented in years four and five by support from the constituent colleges.
Outreach activities will include a summer program for high school students and connections to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, many of which are also launching quantum initiatives.
A workshop later this year will mark the formal kick-off of the center.
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