Faculty to lead development of quantum simulators in major NSF-funded effort

Thursday, Sep 2, 2021
by Scott Lyon, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Seeking a detailed blueprint for early quantum computing applications, Princeton researchers have joined a multi-institutional effort to develop large-scale simulators to study complex quantum systems.

The National Science Foundation’s Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation, announced on September 2, brings together computer scientists, engineers and physicists from five universities and the federal government. With a $25 million award from the National Science Foundation, researchers will develop theoretical concepts, design experimental hardware, and provide education and training for a suite of methods and tools that can help uncover and predict quantum phenomena.

Quantum simulation is a step toward realizing a world where quantum computers can improve medicine, break encryption and revolutionize communications.

Jeff Thompson, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is one of the institute's five principal investigators and serves on its executive committee. He will also lead a team in building a new atomic-physics experiment to study open quantum systems that are coupled to the surrounding environment.

Two other Princeton teams will contribute to the institute's research. Andrew Houck, professor of electrical and computer engineering, will tackle a set of physics problems using arrays of superconducting qubits. David Huse, professor of physics, will use his expertise in statistical physics to understand the transition between two phases of a quantum system: one in which the system stores or processes information, and one in which it fails to do so.

“Quantum simulation is arguably the most compelling application of quantum computers, yet there is no clear hub in the U.S. that is devoted to this topic,” said Andrew Childs, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland and the institute's director and lead principal investigator. “Through dedicated research, education and outreach, we will nurture the quantum simulation community and provide a sharp focus on new discoveries and applications involving quantum simulation.”

The institute will also include experts from Duke University, North Carolina State University, Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The researchers have identified three major scientific challenges on which to focus their efforts: methods for verifying the correctness of simulations, the interaction of simulators with their environments, and the development of scalable quantum simulators for science and technology applications.

To do this, they plan to explore the theoretical foundations of quantum algorithms and error correction on four leading hardware platforms: trapped ions, arrays of Rydberg atoms, quantum photonics with solid-state defects and superconducting circuits. The researchers also will develop reconfigurable quantum simulators using the platforms.

The researchers envision tight collaboration between theoretical and experimental approaches including the joint development of optical and microwave control techniques across different experimental platforms, allowing for rapid advances in system size and controllability.

The institute will  include a strong educational component. Plans call for a new  conference on quantum simulation and other outreach and education programs that engage diverse groups of students in quantum science, including partnerships with Morgan State University and North Carolina Central University, both historically Black universities.

Faculty in the new institute also plan to introduce cross-disciplinary undergraduate specializations in quantum information and provide quantum information training for postgraduates and professionals.

The founding NSF award is the latest in a series of federal grants establishing a cohort of Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes. Three Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes launched last year, with the Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation and the Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Quantum Sensing in Biophysics and Bioengineering—led by the University of Chicago—being funded in 2021.

Princeton's role in the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation builds on recent  leadership in developing transformative quantum technologies. Last year, Princeton researchers took a lead role in the Department of Energy's new $115 million Co-Design Center for Quantum Advantage, dedicated to finding the platforms for machines that outstrip the capabilities of classical computers.