Chattanooga is leveraging its high-speed fiber for the first commercial quantum network, while Maryland builds a quantum ecosystem.
After the federal government warned agencies to secure their cryptographic systems against quantum computing, there was no ignoring the urgency for the U.S. to invest in the advanced technology. Research has already spread beyond federal agencies and universities with several states and localities positioning themselves as front-runners in the global quantum race.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, may be first out of the gate as it announced the first ever commercial quantum network is now available for businesses, academics and government researchers to use. The city, its municipal utility Electric Power Board (EPB) and other stakeholders rolled out the quantum-as-a-service offering at the inaugural Quantum World Congress this week.
In partnership with quantum network company Qubitekk, the EPB Quantum Network leverages the city’s fiber-optic network. It integrates technologies for distributing qubits, including polarization controllers that maintain qubit quality across the fiber network, high-efficiency superconducting nanowire detectors that measure the qubits’ quantum states and quantum-compatible fiber-optic switches that are critical for routing and reconfiguring that network.
Construction on the network began in January, and by summer 2023, officials said they expect to add additional nodes to the network so researchers can put in their own equipment. Qubitekk President and Chief Technology Officer Duncan Earl said in a speech that the network offers "critical infrastructure that's badly needed by the quantum community."
While there are other quantum networks being built around the world, Earl said this one is significant as it is the first to be commercially available and could attract quantum researchers and businesses to Chattanooga to use it.
“The reason that's so important is it's going to really accelerate the commercialization of quantum technologies,” Earl said in an interview. “And that's going to happen right in the community of Chattanooga, so that's a big deal for that city for sure. It puts them on the map and connects them with the rest of the larger quantum community.”
Quantum computing harnesses quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for classic computers. And while Earl and others said the technology is at least 10 years away from maturity, it has been suggested it could improve various applications, including cybersecurity and climate modeling.
And given the role quantum computing will play in national security, the network will help Chattanooga "be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves," former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said in a speech.
Research is also underway at Virginia’s Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, where scientists are looking to devise encryption techniques that can withstand a cyberattack from a quantum computer.
As other states look to position themselves as quantum leaders, Maryland representatives said their state was ahead of the curve on the technology and the most likely to lead the way in its new era.
Also speaking at the Quantum World Congress, University of Maryland President Darryll Pines said he believed the campus and the Mid-Atlantic region is “already the capital of quantum,” something he acknowledged on-stage was a "very provocative statement."
Major quantum investments began in 2006 on the College Park campus, when the university established the Joint Quantum Institute alongside the National Institute for Standards and Technology. NIST then joined the University of Maryland to launch the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science and then the separate Quantum Technology Center to study quantum-capable devices.
Pines said it has taken $1 billion of investment in buildings, labs and technology to build the “capital of quantum,” as well as partnerships with the public and private sectors. It has also required an ecosystem that encourages startups and a sense of fearlessness to work in an emerging space.
"You need fearlessness because change is hard,” Pines said. “Progress is hard. Invention is hard. It takes courage to innovate, courage to harness new fields of science like quantum."
The university has already moved into the next phase of its quantum efforts as it tests its Mid-Atlantic Region Quantum Internet, a network that transmits photons along an existing fiber network. So far, Pines said the network is being demonstrated on a five-to-10 mile section of fiber, but the project’s partners have ambitions to build it out worldwide.
Pines said the time is right to go “fearlessly forward” in this new phase of quantum research.
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