Earlier this year, the Q-NEXT quantum research center announced that Amazon Web Services (AWS) joined its growing collaboration. The partnership is not only an opportunity for Q-NEXT to leverage the resources of the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform, but it is also a chance for AWS to connect with other institutions to accelerate the company’s quantum technology research and development.
A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Quantum Information Science Research Center led by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, Q-NEXT develops quantum technologies that will improve people’s lives. For example, experts are working to establish quantum information networks that are eavesdrop-proof, a development that would be especially beneficial for areas such as finance.
“We always talk about the quantum scientists, but of course there is a lot more to building quantum systems than just knowing quantum science. We need electrical engineers, software experts, materials scientists and engineers — all these roles.” — Antia Lamas-Linares, AWS
One of the people working to link the globe through quantum networks is AWS research scientist Antia Lamas-Linares, the lead for the AWS Center for Quantum Networking.
Lamas-Linares and her team encode information in the quantum properties of photons, the fundamental units of light. By enciphering information, they are working to explore how to store, control, compute and transmit information in powerful ways that can’t be achieved through traditional computing and communication.
A challenge of quantum technology is successfully transmitting the carriers of quantum information — the photons — over long enough distances. Say someone wants to send photons with encoded quantum information over fiber-optic cable. The weakness of the quantum signal limits how far the photons can travel without being absorbed in the fiber.
One solution is a quantum repeater, which Lamas-Linares and others at AWS are developing as a step toward practical, long-distance quantum networks. Like a horse ready to embark on one leg of a Pony Express route, a repeater refreshes the delivery of the message, ensuring it arrives at its destination intact.
The development of a repeater is an exciting engineering challenge, Lamas-Linares said. For example, in a quantum network, photons travel through a fiber 1,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair. How do you perfectly align the fiber tip with the part of the repeater that receives the photon?
Nanopositioners are instruments that can nudge the fiber that fraction of a hair so that the photons successfully arrive in their tiny, high-tech depot. They’re a proven technology, but other factors need to be considered when planning for a large-scale information network.
“The technology definitely works. These nanopositioners are amazing, but it’s not a very scalable process,” Lamas-Linares said. “You wouldn’t want to have to operate a ton of them.”
Lamas-Linares and team are developing and testing different fabrication processes that will reliably convey the photons in and out of the repeater.
Complicating matters is the fact that their repeater technology operates in a refrigerator that’s a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. Once the repeater system is assembled, it will need to survive cycles of warming and cooling from close to absolute zero to room temperature. How do you accommodate the materials’ inevitable physical changes?
“When you cool down the device, it has to remain well-coupled, well-coordinated,” Lamas-Linares said. “Everything has to be extremely precise. It’s nanometer-scale positioning that needs to be exactly right.”
The challenge is emblematic of the kind of problem solving that industry is good at: the combination of small-scale engineering and large-scale production.
And it’s a good fit for Lamas-Linares, who came to AWS in 2021 with experience in both academia and industry. After earning her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Oxford and completing a postdoctoral appointment at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she moved to Singapore, where she co-founded the Centre for Quantum Technologies in 2003.
After two further stints at research centers in the United States, she joined a Singapore-based startup called SpeQtral as chief quantum scientist, working on quantum connections for small satellites.
At AWS, Lamas-Linares’ work combines the long-range perspective of academia with the consumer focus of industry.
“We’re in a privileged position because we are thinking about the customer needs, but we’re thinking long-term. Everybody here is aware that this is not like a 24-month life cycle. We work for a long-term vision,” she said. “If you’re in industry, you need a vision of where you want to arrive.”
She and others at AWS are exploring areas that will connect people through quantum technologies. For example, collaborators at AWS are interested in working with Q-NEXT’s university and DOE national laboratory scientists to create new quantum materials and devices using nanoscale fabrication techniques. They’re also interested in cooperating to make qubits — the fundamental units of quantum information — that are based on atomic-level irregularities in diamond.
AWS and Q-NEXT are also aligned in their interest to expand the pool of people who work in quantum information science.
“We always talk about the quantum scientists, but of course there is a lot more to building quantum systems than just knowing quantum science,” Lamas-Linares said. “We need electrical engineers, software experts, materials scientists and engineers — all these roles. It’s a very interesting area, and not just for people who are getting their Ph.D.s in quantum technologies. We particularly want to explore nontraditional routes for people coming into this field.”
Being part of Q-NEXT, she said, is an opportunity to recruit experts across disciplines, draw on the diffusion of techniques and information at different institutions, and break through the knowledge silos.
“As a global company that already provides computing resources to academia, industry and governments worldwide and boasts one of the world’s largest fiber networks, AWS will certainly play a role in building our future quantum infrastructure,” said Q-NEXT Director David Awschalom, who is also an Argonne senior scientist, vice dean of Research and Infrastructure and the Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering and physics at the University of Chicago, and the director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “Antia not only understands the physics and engineering challenges of quantum technology, but she also knows how to innovate for real-world challenges. She and others at AWS bring their long-range vision to Q-NEXT, and I’m excited to see what they’ll bring to the future of quantum communication.”
This work is supported by the U.S. DOE National Quantum Information Science Research Centers as part of the Q-NEXT center.
Q-NEXT is a U.S. Department of Energy National Quantum Information Science Research Center led by Argonne National Laboratory. Q-NEXT brings together world-class researchers from national laboratories, universities and U.S. technology companies with the goal of developing the science and technology to control and distribute quantum information. Q-NEXT collaborators and institutions will create two national foundries for quantum materials and devices, develop networks of sensors and secure communications systems, establish simulation and network test beds, and train the next-generation quantum-ready workforce to ensure continued U.S. scientific and economic leadership in this rapidly advancing field. For more information, visit https://q-next.org/.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.