Tian Zhong receives prestigious NSF CAREER award aimed at making quantum internet a reality

Asst. Prof. Tian Zhong of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for his research proposal on creating a quantum internet, which could give internet users the power of quantum computing by distributing entanglement and exchanging quantum information over a global scale.

The research project, “Long-distance quantum network of long-lived rare-earth qubits,” earned Zhong the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from NSF. The award carries a value of $500,000 over a five-year period.

Zhong’s winning proposal is designed around integrating research and education, and will lead to the creation of two new courses at the University of Chicago.

“I am honored to receive this award,” said Zhong “It’s a recognition of our research at the frontier of quantum information science and our efforts in training and developing a new quantum workforce.”

“Tian’s research has the potential to vastly improve information security and communications networks,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of Pritzker Molecular Engineering. “This richly deserved award not only supports his innovative work, but also provides students at the University with the opportunity to learn about and work on advanced technologies that will have a significant impact on society.”

Building a quantum internet atom by atom

Quantum internet consists of stationary nodes where entanglement is generated and stored, and the nodes are connected via photons as quantum links. Today, distribution of quantum-secured cryptographic keys over a network link has been realized, but only at distances no greater than ~100 km due to the intrinsic loss of optical fibers.

Zhong’s project proposes to overcome this limit by developing quantum repeater nodes, where quantum information—in the form of a qubit—is sent as photons between nearby nodes. Qubits are then stored in the internal states of atoms as quantum memories at each node for further processing or user access.

Zhong’s research focuses on using individual rare-earth atoms in solids to realize his repeater node. The rare-earth atoms, specifically erbium (Er), tout long quantum coherence times and emission at a wavelength that is compatible with existing telecommunication infrastructure.

Once deployed, such a network will enable many applications ranging from quantum cryptography, which promises secure communication, to blind quantum computing, to enhanced quantum sensing. Global access to quantum entanglement will allow more accurate timekeeping and improve long baseline telescopes.

This line of research is cutting-edge,” said Zhong. “If it’s successful, we’ll be the first to demonstrate a functional, long-distance quantum network based on rare-earth solid-state qubits.”

New opportunities for students

This highly interdisciplinary project will provide a unique opportunity for training graduate and undergraduate students as a new generation of quantum scientists and engineers, fully equipping them for their future academic or industrial careers.

Zhong has planned two entirely new courses, which he hopes will help spur students into state-of-the-art quantum technology development.

One is MENG 33300 - Quantum Engineering, a graduate/advanced undergraduate course at PME. An early version of the course has been launched for the 2019-2020 academic year, and Zhong says he’s excited to refine and further improve the class in the future.

“Hopefully it’s going to be a transformative educational experience for our students, by exciting their interest in quantum engineering and preparing them for their PhD research,” said Zhong.

The second class that Zhong is launching is Optics and Photonics, which will be aimed at undergraduate students. Zhong said that for many students, it might be the first time they learn about optics and photonics, which are pillar subjects in modern science and engineering. He hopes it will inspire students to pursue further studies in those topic areas.

The project also highlights outreach activities to engage women and underrepresented students in Chicago public high schools. In collaboration with the STAGE Lab, Zhong is helping to explore new forms of art that convey ideas of quantum science to a broader audience.

“We believe as educators that it’s our job to expose students to and train them on quantum concepts very early on,” said Zhong. “That’s why we design programs targeted at high school students and the general public. The goal is not to lecture on quantum physics, but to create an engaging experience for them to appreciate the importance and future potentials of quantum technologies and their impact on society.”