ion trap (K. Hudek, Ion Q&E / E. Edwards, JQI)

NSF funds a leap toward quantum computing

Named after a sci-fi TV series about a time-traveling physicist, the National Science Foundation’s Quantum Leap project has just awarded $15 million to a multi-disciplinary group of researchers who are working to build a practical quantum computer.

While quantum computers have been demonstrated in proof-of-concept experiments, no such device has yet been developed that is capable of solving a computational problem.

"Quantum computers will change everything about the technology we use and how we use it, and we are still taking the initial steps toward realizing this goal," NSF Director France Córdova said in a statement. "Developing the first practical quantum computer would be a major milestone. By bringing together experts who have outlined a path to a practical quantum computer and supporting its development, NSF is working to take the quantum revolution from theory to reality."

Researchers have already learned to store data at the atomic level in “qubits,” or quantum bits, using three different methods.  First, by shining lasers on individual atoms, the electrons inside can be excited, with the state of excitement representing either a value of either 0 or 1 just as in binary computers.

Another method of quantum coding alters the spin of electrons in atoms.

Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design (STAQ) project will explore a third method, called the “trapped-ion” approach, of encoding data in ions -- charged atomic particles -- that are suspended in electromagnetic fields.

Whichever method proves to be the most efficient, researchers expect that since quantum computers process data at an atomic level, they have the potential to be millions of times faster than existing computers and much smaller.

The STAQ project aims to develop a practical method for efficiently coding, processing and reading the data memorialized in those atoms. That will involve both creating new algorithms as well as hardware.

“The key to dramatically increasing the efficiency of quantum algorithms on realistic machines is to break conventional notions of how software should be structured,” said Fred Chong, professor of computer science at the University of Chicago and leader of the STAQ team. “Software will more directly specialize algorithms for hardware, adapting to physical properties. In this way, algorithms can run on machines that are 100s to 1000s of times smaller than we might think.”

While Google and IBM have recently developed quantum computers composed of as many as 72 qubits, the STAQ team is aiming to produce a machine with 100 qubits. 

“There’s a really clear path to getting to two-to-three dozen ion trap qubits working together in a quantum computer,” said team member Kenneth Brown, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, chemistry and physics at Duke University. “But it will take at least twice as many to solve a challenging calculation, and achieving that within five years is no cakewalk.”

Key to the STAQ approach is assembling an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists, physicists, engineers and chemists. In addition to Duke and the University of Chicago, researchers from University of Maryland, Tufts University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley and the University of New Mexico are participating in STAQ.

"The first truly effective quantum computer will not emerge from one researcher working in a single discipline," said NSF Chief Operating Officer Fleming Crim. "Quantum computing requires experts from a range of fields, with individuals applying complementary insights to solve some of the most challenging problems in science and engineering."

Once developed, NSF plans to make the STAQ quantum computer cloud accessible to researchers.

To support quantum computer hardware development, NSF announced a $20 to $25 million program to establish "foundries" for rapid prototyping and development of quantum materials and devices that will translate the technology to customer-ready products in partnership with industry.

 The Enabling Quantum Leap: Convergent Accelerated Discovery Foundries for Quantum Materials Science, Engineering, and Information (Q-AMASE-i) program  is looking particularly for new materials and ways to transport of charge and spin, including valleytronics, spintronics and low-power electronics.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Records management is about to get harder

    New collaboration technologies ramped up in the wake of the pandemic have introduced some new challenges.

  • puzzled employee (fizkes/

    Phish Scale: Weighing the threat from email scammers

    The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Phish Scale quantifies characteristics of phishing emails that are likely to trick users.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.