To build the quantum internet, the engineer from UChicago teaches atoms to remember

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When the quantum Internet hits the market, researchers predict that it will transform the computing landscape to an extent that has not been seen in decades. In their opinion, hacking will be a thing of the past. It will secure global power grids and voting systems. It will allow nearly unlimited computing power and allow users to send information safely over long distances.

But for Tian Zhong, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), the most alluring benefits of the quantum Internet are still inconceivable.


Zhong is a quantum engineer working to build this new global network. In his opinion, the full effect of the quantum Internet can only be realized after its establishment. To understand his work and understand why the United States is spending $ 625 million on the new technology, it helps to look at the science behind it: quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is a theory that was developed to explain basic properties of matter, particularly on the subatomic scale. Its roots date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when scientists tried to explain the unusual nature of light, which behaves as both a wave and a particle. In the hundred years since then, physicists have learned a lot, especially about the strange behavior of subatomic particles.

For example, you learned that some subatomic particles have the ability to be in two states at the same time, a principle called superposition. Another such principle is entanglement, ie the ability of two particles to “communicate” immediately even though they are hundreds of kilometers apart.

Over time, scientists have found ways to manipulate these principles, entangle particles at will, or control the spin of an electron. This new control enables researchers to encode, send and process information with subatomic particles – and thus lays the foundation for quantum computing and the quantum internet.

At the moment, both technologies are still hampered by certain physical limitations – quantum computers, for example, have to be stored in giant subzero freezers – but researchers like Zhong are optimistic that these limitations will be removed in the near future.

“We have come to a point where this is no longer science fiction,” said Zhong. “It’s starting to look like this technology is coming out of the lab every day and ready to be adopted by society.”


The right tools for the job

Zhong’s research focuses on the hardware required to make the quantum Internet a reality, things like quantum chips that encrypt and decrypt quantum information, and quantum repeaters that relay information over network lines. To develop this hardware, Zhong and his team are working on the subatomic scale, using individual atoms to store information and individual photons to carry it through optical cables.

Zhong’s current work focuses on finding ways to combat quantum decoherence, in which information stored in a quantum system is broken down to such an extent that it is no longer accessible. Decoherence is a particularly difficult obstacle to overcome because quantum states are extremely sensitive and any external force – be it heat, light, radiation or vibration – can easily destroy them.

Most researchers deal with decoherence by keeping quantum computers at a temperature close to absolute zero. But as soon as a quantum state is transmitted outside the freezer, for example over a network line, it begins to collapse within a few microseconds, which severely limits the potential for extensive interconnectivity.


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