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MSU awarded $20M grant for quantum technology development

MSU campus
Posted at 9:10 AM, Sep 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-02 11:10:45-04

BOZEMAN — With a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Montana State University and the University of Arkansas will establish the MonArk Quantum Foundry to accelerate the development of quantum materials and devices. The foundry will assist those studying 2D materials for quantum technologies by creating tools to aid their research and infrastructure to facilitate the exchange of ideas across academia and industry.

“It’s not that we’re going to create the next sensor or the next quantum computer,” said Yves Idzerda, the director of the MonArk Quantum Foundry [montana.edu], dean of the College of Letters and Science [montana.edu] and professor in the Department of Physics [physics.montana.edu] at MSU. “We’re going to create either the technology, the instrumentation or the devices which will allow for these breakthroughs to occur.”

The MonArk Quantum Foundry is only the second research group in the country funded by the NSF’s Enabling Quantum Leap: Convergent Accelerated Discovery Foundries for Quantum Materials Science, Engineering and Information program [nsf.gov], which is designed to create connections between science and industry. Before industry can move forward, new technologies must lay the foundation for its advancement.

“That’s the idea of a foundry,” Idzerda said. “You do basic research, but always look for the industrial connection.”

Techniques to purify silicon, Idzerda explained, allowed semiconductors to spark an electronics revolution. Scientists are now focused on the next technological revolution — one based on the quantum mechanics. Unlike the classical mechanics governing the visible universe — where objects and forces behave predictably — quantum mechanics defines erratic behaviors observed in atoms and subatomic particles, such as how they may act as particles and waves simultaneously.­

“These intuition-defying properties lead to new ways to handle, store and process information,” said Nick Borys, an assistant professor who teaches quantum mechanics in MSU’s Department of Physics and the Montana-based associate director of the MonArk Quantum Foundry. “Using quantum mechanics presents new ways for us to solve challenging computational problems, achieve very secure communications as well as perform sensitive measurements.”

Borys’ counterpart at the University of Arkansas will be physics professor Hugh Churchill. David Dickensheets, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering [ece.montana.edu] in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering [coe.montana.edu] at MSU, will direct an open-source network to disseminate information about the foundry’s technological advancements.

“Inter-institutional partnerships like this one between Montana State and the University of Arkansas are critical to solving complex barriers that exist in developing novel quantum materials,” said Jason Carter, MSU’s vice president for research, economic development and graduate education. “When coupled with strategic industrial and government partnerships, MonArk will address one of the most pressing areas of modern scientific and technological development.”

The MonArk Quantum Foundry will focus on 2D materials — a single layer of atoms with nothing above or below them, sometimes called a monolayer. Properties that materials hold in their 3D state — such as thermal and electrical conductivity — are retained in a monolayer. But some are more efficient or take on other qualities, and almost all the 2D monolayers are classified as quantum materials.

“Anything you think of that can work in three dimensions can work in two dimensions but in a very different way,” Idzerda said.

One of the most prevalent of these materials is graphene, a monolayer of carbon atoms. As graphene, the carbon becomes 200 times stronger than steel, but also flexible and able to conduct electricity.

“We’re really looking for ways to understand the fundamental behavior of reality and what we can do in order to create things that ease people’s lives and improve society in some way,” Idzerda said.

However, preparing 2D materials for scientific study is time-consuming. First, a 3D material must have a crystalline structure where the atoms are arranged in a predictable and precise lattice. This allows for a single layer of atoms to be peeled off using simple adhesive tape, a tedious method that relegates researchers to days of trial and error to isolate a single layer.

“Research progress for a number of groups is not hindered by the scientific challenges but the challenges of actually isolating the materials and then making a device out of them,” said Borys.

The first charge of the MonArk Quantum Foundry is to mechanize this process. The foundry will team with industrial partners including Montana Instruments [montanainstruments.com] and HighRI Optics [highrioptics.com] to create two 2D Quantum Materials Pipelines, one based at MSU and one at UA. The pipelines will feature specialized robotics to test different pressures and application speeds for the adhesive, examine the resulting 2D layer under a microscope, and use artificial intelligence to analyze the conditions. Once optimized for a material, the instruments will have the ability to lift a single layer repeatedly and mount layers on a specialized surface for study.

Mechanizing the creation of these 2D materials will open the door for new projects. Individual layers can be stacked if they are separated by another substance, or if one of the layers is rotated, and the resulting artificial materials, like graphene, have yet untold uses.

“There’s a lot of ideas behind what you can do and that’s why it’s so rich,” Idzerda said. “That’s why we need partners. We have nearly 100 materials you can exfoliate into layers, 100 starting building blocks. There are so many materials and so many ideas that all we are hampered by is the number of people working on them.”

Once the pipeline is completed, researchers will be invited to apply for three years of support through the foundry’s faculty fellows program to test their ideas. Though the program is open to anyone, from any field, Idzerda said the mission focuses on improving opportunities for research enterprise in America’s heartland.

“The real successes — the growth in jobs, the growth in industries — have really been contained to the coasts,” he said. “They really need to be shared with all of the states.”

Carter noted that MonArk will also provide unprecedented learning experiences for students at MSU, and “will contribute significantly to workforce development in quantum technologies.”

The MonArk Quantum Foundry will officially launch Sept. 15. The grant covers six years of operations, with the possibility of renewal for another six years to continue development of quantum materials.

“There is a lot of very exciting potential for these 2D systems,” Borys said. “But we have to do the fundamental materials science and the research on these materials to understand their potential and discover all of the ways they may revolutionize quantum technologies.”