Department of Physics part of national effort to develop revolutionary quantum computers

Maria Iavarone’s lab to use materials science techniques to help extend the life of the qubit

Temple is one of twenty national partners in the Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab

Temple University’s Department of Physics is part of the U.S. National Quantum Initiative, a far-reaching national effort to bring about transformational advances in quantum computing. The goal is to build and deploy an advanced quantum computer based on superconducting technologies. The potential impact is vast, from more reliable weather forecasts to developing new chemicals and medicines to finding novel materials for solar cells to improving cyber security and data encryption.

“A quantum computer can solve problems that traditional computers cannot,” explains Maria Iavarone, professor of physics. “It can process an enormous amount of data in a much shorter time, which means that it is possible to solve much more complex problems and handle vastly larger data sets.”

But a quantum computer isn’t something a student can carry in a backpack. It’s a bulky machine that needs to be cooled down close to absolute zero—nearly minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit—and is extremely sensitive to all types of interference. One of the biggest barriers to the construction of a quantum computer is the short life span of the information that lives in a qubit, the quantum analog of the traditional computer bit. Today’s highest-performing qubits maintain information for, at most, 100 microseconds—not long enough for a viable quantum computer.

“One of the major problems for the implementation of large-scale quantum computing is to keep qubits operational for longer periods of time,” says Iavarone. “What contributes to a qubit’s extremely short life span, or decoherence, in a superconducting quantum system are material defects and imperfections at surfaces and interfaces.” 

Iavarone’s group will be using low temperature scanning tunneling microscopy, which enables scientist to understand the electronic properties of materials down to the atomic scale—essentially allowing the human eye to see a single atom. The low-vibration facility is located on the lower level of Temple’s Science Education and Research Center.

For Iavarone, a materials science approach to understanding the basic mechanisms of decoherence is crucial. “We are unraveling the role of atomic-scale to nano-scale defects in limiting the performance of superconducting quantum devices,” she says. “This will allow us to address the underlying physics and materials science mechanisms that are instrumental for achieving a new level for quantum processors.”

“Professor Iavarone’s group has a proven record of success applying scanning tunneling microscopy to superconductors and to other materials,” says Jim Napolitano, professor and chair of the Physics Department. “That expertise will be critical to this national initiative and to developing the next generation of quantum computers.”

The project is projected to bring in approximately $1 million in funding for equipment and to fund several research postdocs. “The research will also be a great opportunity for students to be trained in state-of-the-art quantum technologies, giving Temple students opportunities for internships in the most advanced superconducting computing companies,” says Iavarone.

Temple is one of 20 partner institution working with the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab, selected to lead one of five national centers to advance quantum information science as a part of a $625 million U.S. National Quantum Initiative. The initiative provides Fermilab’s new Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center with $115 million with the goal of building and deploying a beyond-state-of-the-art quantum computer based on superconducting technologies.

Read the White House's statement on the initiative.

-Greg Fornia

August 26, 2020