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SU physicist receives more than $2 million for quantum computing research

June 09, 2009

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

A Syracuse University physicist has received more than $2 million from two federal agencies to further his research into building nanoscale superconducting circuits that may someday form the basis of quantum computers. The funding will also be used to build new tools that will enable scientists to probe the fundamental nature of these circuits and their interactions.

Britton L.T. Plourde, assistant professor of physics in SU's College of Arts and Sciences, has received a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) and a four-year, $840,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Both grants are part of larger grants awarded to Plourde's research associates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ontario; the University of California at Irvine; and IBM.

Scientists believe that a quantum computer, composed of quantum bits or qubits, would be able to solve problems that are completely unsolvable on even the most powerful of today's supercomputers. That's because, unlike the binary digits or bits in today's silicon chips, qubits follow the laws of quantum mechanics-a field of scientific inquiry that describes the motion and interaction of subatomic particles. Plourde's lab focuses on the study and development of qubits that are formed from superconducting circuits.

The computational power of a quantum computer arises from two counterintuitive properties in the quantum world, properties that are inherent to qubits. The first quantum property is the ability of qubits to simultaneously exist in multiple states, enabling a quantum computer to perform many calculations at once. In contrast, the bits that form the basic element of today's computers can exist only in one of two states at a time. The second property is the ability of pairs of qubits to become entangled in a quantum state where a measurement of one qubit can determine the state of the entangled partner. This enables scientists to know the value of qubits without actually looking at them.

However, qubits can only exist in multiple states for short periods of time, so scientists need to figure out new ways to build more robust and stable qubits. They also need to develop new technologies to better understand the fundamental nature of entanglement in superconducting circuits. Plourde's grants will enable his team to explore both avenues of research.

Before coming to SU in 2005, Plourde was part of a research team at the University of California at Berkeley that studied systems of two superconducting qubits. Plourde says great progress has been made in the field, but many daunting challenges remain before a practical quantum computer could be built. He is confident, however, that the process of investigating quantum mechanical behavior in nanoscale superconducting circuits will in itself yield surprising results.

"The new knowledge generated in this area of research could result in important spinoff technologies outside the field of quantum computing, such as the development of ultra-low noise devices for amplifying weak signals," Plourde says. "These kinds of technologies could have applications in such fields as astrophysics or communications."

Two years ago, Plourde received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, the NSF's most prestigious award for young faculty members. He holds bachelor's degrees with honors in physics and music from the University of Michigan, and master's degrees in physics and flute performance and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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