Accelerating a quantum future
Learn how College of Engineering and College of Arts & Sciences researchers are helping to establish the UW as a global leader of the coming quantum age.
We’re on the brink of a major revolution driven by quantum information science and engineering with potential to change the way we live and work. Quantum information science uses quantum effects to acquire, transmit and process information. It has already enabled us to better understand nature and advance groundbreaking technologies like GPS, MRI scans and lasers for health-care applications.
The UW has deep roots in quantum research and discovery. Two UW scientists have earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for quantum research — Hans Dehmelt in 1989 and David Thouless in 2016. Today, the UW is one of a growing number of universities across the globe with quantum information programs. Thanks to partnerships with industry including Microsoft, Boeing, Google and Amazon, and with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), College of Engineering and College of Arts & Sciences researchers have been working to accelerate quantum research and teaching. In doing so, they are helping to situate the UW and Washington state as a leader in this area. Learn about our efforts so far.
The quantum edge
A classical computer uses strings of 0s and 1s — binary digits, or bits — to perform calculations. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits. These represent information in superposition, meaning in multiple states at the same time — such as a digit that is simultaneously 0 and 1. In theory, this gives quantum computers the ability to solve problems that would take too long for classical computers to solve: cracking fiendishly difficult codes, sifting through molecular formulas to identify materials that could be useful for clean energy applications and designing silver-bullet cancer drugs from scratch.
The UW’s strengths in photonics, materials science, physics, computer science, and electrical and computer engineering give it an edge in pursuing quantum science. Resources such as the Washington Quantum Technologies, Training and Testbed Laboratory (QT3) and the Washington Nanofabrication Facility also help, as does the College of Engineering’s strong commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Over the last few years rising and established stars in the field have joined the UW through a cluster hire investment. These faculty include Serena Eley, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Juan Carlos Idrobo, professor of materials science and engineering; Sara Mouradian, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Rahul Trivedi, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Di Xiao, professor of physics and of materials science and engineering. Later this year, Andrea Coladangelo will join the faculty of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, and Charles Marcus will join us from the University of Copenhagen as a professor of physics and of materials science and engineering.
In addition to research to improve computers, diagnostics, security and encryption, the UW’s quantum science efforts have a practical and pragmatic side: workforce training. This means streamlining graduate education, expanding undergraduate curriculum, and partnering with industry on retraining programs, so that established engineers and programmers can add quantum skills to their resumes.
Research in the Quantum Defect Laboratory focuses on identifying and controlling the quantum properties of point defects in crystals, which has potential applications for both information and sensing technologies. Dennis Wise / University of Washington
A new quantum graduate certificate at the UW
Kai-Mei Fu inspects equipment in the Quantum Defect Laboratory, which she directs at the UW. Dennis Wise / University of Washington
Launched this fall, the UW Graduate Certificate in Quantum Information Science and Engineering provides students with a robust, interdisciplinary experience that explores how this emerging field relates to other areas within science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Established by a multidisciplinary faculty group, the certificate program is directed by Kai-Mei Fu, an associate professor of physics and of electrical and computer engineering. Open to any UW graduate student who has met the required prerequisites, the program is an especially good fit for students interested in quantum information science who are studying electrical and computer engineering, physics, computer science and engineering, chemistry, or materials science and engineering.
“The people who tend to be drawn to this program are students who have been hearing about quantum information, realize the impact scalable quantum computing systems can have and want to understand how their discipline can actually help make this impact a reality,” Fu says. “If you want to make a difference in this field, then you need a solid base. And if you want to get that base, then you should get the certificate.”
The certificate can be completed concurrently with a master’s or doctoral degree, and it prepares students for careers and leadership roles in fields related to development of quantum-enabled technologies. Students in the program will have access to quantum cloud computers through Microsoft Azure, which will allow them to run experiments and explore how real quantum devices behave in practice.
A quantum future for the Pacific Northwest
Like the 1980s when classical computing and personal computers changed the world, recent advances in quantum information science promise major breakthroughs in communications, computing and simulation. Industry and governments around the world are investing heavily in quantum information science, recognizing its potential and poised to capitalize on it.
On campus, QuantumX serves as an interdisciplinary hub for advancing and integrating research, teaching and commercialization across all areas of quantum. Co-chaired by Kai-Mei Fu and Arka Majumdar, both associate professors of physics and of electrical and computer engineering, QuantumX links the UW community to external partners to foster new ideas and to prepare students for a quantum-ready society.
The UW also co-founded the Northwest Quantum Nexus (NQN) in partnership with Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Launched in 2019, NQN seeks to boost the region’s economy by attracting scientists, funding and collaborations in quantum fields to the area. It aims to cultivate a regional workforce that is expert in quantum science, engineering and technology through education and training — including undergraduate and graduate education, curriculum development and internships. It also promotes public-private partnerships, collaborative multidisciplinary research and tech translation — all to drive a vibrant regional economy. Washington State University, the University of Oregon, and ionQ have since joined NQN.
Recent quantum research news
UW team uses sound waves to move ‘excitons’
A UW research team led by Mo Li, a professor of physics and of electrical and computer engineering, has developed a method of using soundwaves to move subatomic quasiparticles known as “excitons” a greater distance than ever before possible. The team’s innovations lead the way to development of a new type of computing circuit that is faster and more energy efficient, using light and quantum phenomena to store, process and transmit information.
Lasers trigger magnetism in atomically thin quantum materials
UW researchers have discovered that light in the form of a laser can trigger a form of magnetism in a normally nonmagnetic material. This magnetism centers on the behavior of electrons. These subatomic particles have an electronic property called “spin,” which has potential applications in quantum computing. The research team — which includes Xiaodong Xu and Di Xiao, both professors of physics and of materials science and engineering — found that electrons within the material became oriented in the same direction when illuminated by photons from a laser.
New energy-efficient switches could help advance quantum computing
A research team led by Arka Majumdar, an associate professor of physics and of electrical and computer engineering, and electrical and computer engineering doctoral student Zhuoran (Roger) Fang, has designed an energy-efficient switch that manipulates light — paving the way for advancements in quantum computing and data centers, which consume large amounts of energy.