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Brookhaven National Lab gets $115M for quantum computing center

An IBM quantum computer at the CES 2020.

An IBM quantum computer at the CES 2020. IBM and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have been developing prototype quantum computers, paralleling national research efforts. Credit: IBM

Brookhaven National Laboratory will receive $115 million in federal funding over five years as part of a research push to advance ultrafast quantum computing.

BNL will lead a team that includes IBM, MIT and Stony Brook University as one of five national laboratories racing to make quantum computers that can be scaled up and are less delicate and prone to errors than current prototypes.

James Misewich, associate laboratory director for Energy and Photon Sciences at the Upton facility, will oversee the project, known as the Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage (C2QA).

Misewich said more mature quantum computers could be used for basic science such as simulating chemical reactions, but also could be turned to broader questions, such as simulating financial systems.

"There's an incredibly wide range," he said.

At the same time, Misewich acknowledged that there is a global race to develop quantum computers and said it is "critical" that the United States maintains its lead.

Dmitri Kharzeev, a Stony Brook University professor who will lead the university's C2QA team, said that China is Washington's main competitor in the global quantum computing race, though researchers in Japan and Europe also are making headway.

"The big goal is to make quantum computers outperform classical computers," he said, a goal signified in the project's use of the phrase "quantum advantage." "The potential of quantum computing is incredible."

For instance, Kharzeev said, while current computers might require one million photons to transmit a certain amount of data over fiber optic cables, a quantum computing system would require a single photon to transmit the same amount of information.

IBM and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have been developing prototype quantum computers, paralleling national research efforts.

Current generation quantum computers, known as noisy intermediate scale quantum, are sensitive to tiny changes in the environment such as temperature, vibrations and electromagnetic waves.

BNL is one of five national laboratories in line to receive a total of $625 million in Department of Energy funding over five years to establish Quantum Research Centers. The others are: the Argonne, Fermi, Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories.

New York politicians from both sides of the aisle hailed the funding.

“The emergence of quantum computing will greatly improve our lives and nation with everything from health care to national security and the financial sector,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). 

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said that with the funding "Brookhaven National Lab is well positioned to continue as one of the world’s preeminent research facilities."

BNL has about 2,600 employees, including about 850 scientists, engineers and researchers. Misewich said that additional staff would be added for the quantum computing project. 

The funding for BNL came as part of an announcement on Wednesday by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy to allocate more than $1 billion for the quantum research institutes and 12 new artificial intelligence research centers nationwide. 

Other New York partners in C2QA are: City College of New York, Columbia University and State University of New York Polytechnic Institute.

Misewich said quantum researchers were energized by the funding announcement and are rolling up their sleeves.

"It's time to start the science," he said.

How a quantum computer is unlike your laptop

Classical computers use strings of ones and zeros to encode and transmit data, while quantum computers use qubits, a unit of information that harnesses the peculiar behavior of subatomic particles like electrons.

Qubits can encode more information because they can simultaneously be both a one and a zero, a phenomenon known to scientists as "superposition."

Further enhancing their ability to carry information, qubits are not independent, meaning their states can be altered simultaneously, a process known as "entanglement."

Ken Schachter

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