The MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics and MIT Lincoln Laboratory are teaming up to bridge quantum science and quantum technology for real-world applications.

Harnessing the mechanics of the quantum world — electrons and photons — has revolutionized modern life. Semiconductor electronics, lasers, and atomic clocks all rest on scientists' understanding of the quantum nature of light and matter. Still, we've only scratched the surface of quantum technology's potential. Today, the emerging field of quantum engineering, which bridges quantum science and traditional engineering disciplines, promises to push quantum technology further.  

To lead the field, the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) and MIT Lincoln Laboratory are launching the Center for Quantum Engineering (CQE). The center will unite the expertise, infrastructure, and resources of Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT campus to accelerate the development of quantum science and its application to quantum technologies. Such technologies could transform cyber security, drug discovery, machine learning, communications systems, magnetometry, navigation, and more.

Lincoln Laboratory Director Eric Evans said that the partnership "connects research at RLE and Lincoln Laboratory in ways that will allow us to prototype larger-scale quantum computing systems using the latest qubit, microelectronics, and algorithm technology. We are looking forward to driving new advances in this field."

Three researchers in the quantum research laboratory
From left to right, Eric Dauler, head of Lincoln Laboratory’s quantum research group, William Oliver, RLE associate director and Lincoln Laboratory fellow, and Marc Baldo, RLE director, are launching the Center for Quantum Engineering. Photo: Glen Cooper

William Oliver, an RLE associate director and Lincoln Laboratory fellow, will head the center, which will be headquartered at RLE. He views quantum engineering as the next phase of quantum information science. "For a long time, quantum devices were just laboratory curiosities, demonstrations to see if these devices could actually work. But, we now know these devices actually do work, and they can work well. As a result, the field is now transitioning from the realm of laboratory curiosity to the threshold of technical reality."

"We have reached almost full control over simple quantum systems consisting of atoms, photons, or atom-like solid-state systems," said Wolfgang Ketterle, also an RLE associate director. "This now accelerates the pace of scientific discoveries and leads to new applications in quantum engineering."

Marc Baldo, the director of RLE, added that the interdisciplinary emphases on physics and engineering within RLE have synchronized perfectly for launching an effort in quantum engineering. "The fundamental thing is, this is a new frontier," Baldo said. "We don't yet know everything that quantum machines are going to be able to do. What we do know is that they are built on quantum physics — physics that you just can't access in a conventional machine. We're here at the very beginning, and that's the reason it's so exciting. We've been building toward this moment for 20 or 30 years."   

Combining resources

Collaboration between MIT and Lincoln Laboratory in quantum research stretches back more than two decades to when Oliver and MIT Professor Karl Berggren, then at Lincoln Laboratory, teamed up with MIT Professor Terry Orlando to research superconducting quantum bits (qubits), the building blocks of quantum computers. "Much of the theoretical and algorithmic foundations for quantum information science as well as early experimental implementations were developed at MIT," Oliver said.

Lincoln Laboratory excels in the design and prototyping of advanced devices. Researchers here have been investigating systems for developing qubits, such as trapped ions and superconducting circuits, and quantum-based communications systems and sensors. The Laboratory's Quantum Information and Integrated Nanosystems Group has demonstrated several approaches for advancing integrated quantum circuits, including technologies for trapped ions that manipulate optical and electrical signals on-chip and processes for fabricating complex superconducting qubit and control circuitry. Recently, systems for quantum-based communications have reached the testing phase — including a 42-kilometer-long fiber-optic quantum communications link testbed now in operation between Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT campus.

"Pioneering the field of quantum engineering will require well-controlled experiments that investigate a range of designs for the control, readout, and connectivity of qubits," said Eric Dauler, the leader of the Quantum Information and Integrated Nanosystems Group. "We are looking forward to using this new center to expand partnerships with our academic colleagues and jointly establish a foundation of quantum engineering principles."

Both MIT laboratories have state-of-the-art facilities to support quantum technology development. Lincoln Laboratory has the Microelectronics Laboratory, an ISO-9001-certified facility for fabricating advanced circuits for superconducting and trapped-ion qubit applications. MIT recently opened MIT.nano, a more than 20,000-square-foot facility for exploratory fabrication development.

Dirk Englund, leader of the Quantum Photonics Laboratory at MIT, said that the center is a fantastic opportunity to build on his group's collaborative research on quantum sensors and networks with Lincoln Laboratory and with the Quantum Engineering Group at MIT, led by Paola Cappellaro. "Taken together, our three groups have a lot of expertise in diamond quantum technologies, from algorithms to fabrication and growth to systems engineering. The CQE will make a big difference to strengthen the team's collective research in line with Lincoln Laboratory's national security mission."

Several sources of funding are backing the initiative. The National Security Agency’s Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS) — a founding partner of the CQE — intends to support graduate research fellowships, sponsored research, and educational curriculum development, pending availability of funds. "Educating a new generation of quantum scientists and quantum engineers is crucial to realizing the promise of quantum information technologies," said Charles Tahan, the technical director of LPS.

In addition, Lincoln Laboratory currently commits more than $4 million per year of internally directed investment on top of more than $15 million per year in sponsored programs addressing fundamental research in quantum information science and technology. A portion of these funds will support new graduate researchers and research activities under the CQE umbrella.

The center will also benefit from a donation from T.J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor, who has pledged upwards of $5 million to develop a quantum packaging laboratory at MIT and offset costs of renovations at RLE to accommodate more researchers.

Building a quantum ecosystem

MIT will design undergraduate, graduate, and professional development curricula through the center to educate and promote a quantum workforce. A new course, Superconducting Qubits, was offered in 2018 and will run again in 2019. Additional courses are being planned for quantum control, quantum noise, noisy intermediate-scale quantum algorithms, and other topics.

The CQE is also participating in the development of online classes through the MIT Office of Digital Learning. A four-course professional development series on Quantum Computing Fundamentals and Quantum Computing Realities made its first run in 2018 and will repeat again in 2019.

Isaac Chuang, an MIT professor of physics and of electrical engineering and the senior associate dean of digital learning at MIT, said that industry professionals and young academics will be the targets of the center's online educational programs. "These educational programs will accelerate progress towards traditional academic degrees, while also providing new certifications of mastery of quantum information processing fundamentals," said Chuang, who is leading the CQE educational unit.

The CQE will also establish the Quantum Engineering Industrial Consortium, which will provide industry partners with early access to advanced research and will host recruiting events that bring together students and quantum researchers with blue-chip companies, start-ups, venture capital firms, and U.S. government agencies.

“I think the potential impact of quantum research on emerging technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity will generate significant industry interest in the CQE,” said Karl Koster, executive director of MIT Corporate Relations. “By bringing industry to the table and harnessing its unique strengths, CQE will bolster its effectiveness at generating the most innovative R&D in the field.”

This consortium will work in tandem with The Engine, built by MIT, which invests in and supports start-up companies in Tough Tech (that is, breakthrough technology that isn't readily commercialized), including those in the quantum space.

"When we began investing in quantum computing in early 2018, this area of Tough Tech was relatively nascent. But in less than one year, we’ve seen rapid developments in the domain," said Reed Sturtevant, a general partner on the investment team at The Engine. "As Boston-area investors, we are encouraged by the CQE initiatives, and The Engine looks forward to supporting more and more commercial applications of quantum technologies."

"Our goal is to create a quantum ecosystem at MIT and throughout the greater Boston area," Oliver added.

Leading the way

Lincoln Laboratory staff members will participate in the CQE as appointed RLE principal investigators to further integrate the fundamental research efforts at the Laboratory with the work in groups at MIT campus. Jeremy Sage is the first Lincoln Laboratory staff member to be appointed an RLE principal investigator within the center. Sage has been working with Chuang on developing trapped-ion qubits and with MIT Professor Rajeev Ram on creating integrated photonics technology for controlling the qubits.

"To be successful, we need a deep and tightly integrated understanding of both the physics of these quantum systems and the functionality of the hardware we are developing to control them. Creating opportunities to gain such understanding is one of the primary goals of the center," Sage said.

Initial projects at the CQE will focus on superconducting qubit processors, trapped-ion processors, quantum communication technologies, and quantum sensors.

"Going forward, with the support of the center, I believe we'll be able to build on our groups' success in quantum sensing and hopefully start new research activities geared towards modular quantum computing," Englund added.

Mark Gouker, the assistant head of Lincoln Laboratory's Advanced Technology Division, which oversees the quantum group, said that he is "tremendously excited" about the center. Ultimately, he hopes this partnership model will extend beyond quantum information science.

"The CQE will serve as a model for other partnerships with campus where Lincoln Laboratory brings unique fabrication facilities and a prototyping mentality to emerging applied sciences that have established groups on campus," Gouker said. "We would like to see this type of relationship grow to include the materials science, nano- and microsystems, and biotechnology program areas."