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UCalgary professor strives toward quantum technology

By Leonie O’Sullivan, March 26 2024—

The University of Calgary has recently partnered with PASQAL, a global leader in quantum technology. Quantum scientists study the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy. They look at incredibly small units at molecular and sub-molecular levels. The term “quantum,” has become quite the buzzword. For clarity on the subject, The Gauntlet sat down with quantum expert, Shabir Barzanjeh, to discuss quantum technology and his research group’s work. Barzanjeh joined the University of Calgary in 2020 and currently holds the position of Assistant Professor based at the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology

“We have to push research towards commercialization that is interesting and important for the public. Engaging industries and having PASQAL and many other companies involved in this system is important so we can develop our research and pass that to industry for commercialization,” said Barzanjeh.

Barzanjeh’s group focuses on three distinct topics, distinguished by frequency. Frequency refers to the number of wave oscillations per unit time. As you may be aware, electromagnetic radiation is a type of energy that propagates in wave patterns. One of the group’s focuses is on the optical domain, with a frequency of a few hundred terahertz. To put this into perspective, one terahertz equates to a trillion hertz. At this frequency, a few hundred trillion oscillations will occur every second. Another one of the group’s focuses is in the microwave domain, which is characterized by frequencies of a few gigahertz. A gigahertz is one billion hertz.

The research centred on the optical domain tries to generate entanglement. This phenomenon occurs when two building blocks, like photons or electrons, become entangled and connected, causing one to affect the other even over vast distances. Albert Einstein called this process “spooky action at a distance,” and in 2022, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists who made key breakthroughs in quantum entanglement.

Entanglement holds the potential to enhance the processing speed of quantum computers. Unlike classical computers, which rely on a discrete set of possible states (i.e., zero or one), quantum computers are envisioned to harness an infinite and continuous array of possible states. Despite claims from certain companies who say they have built quantum computers, Barzanjeh asserts that these do not align with the definition of quantum computers as they fail to fulfil all necessary criteria.

“We have to be careful about the hype around quantum computers. There is a lot of misinformation,” said Barzanjeh.

The microwave project focuses on developing superconducting circuits. Superconductivity requires special materials like aluminum, which is employed to fabricate chip samples. These samples undergo cooling to -273.143 degrees Celsius using cryogenic systems.

“At that very low temperature, aluminum becomes superconductive, meaning that it doesn’t have any resistance — no loss. That makes it extremely useful for quantum technology because loss and noise are our two enemies for quantum,” said Barzanjeh.

The third research project aims to consolidate Barzanjeh’s work by building bridges between the microwave and optical domains. The group is developing hardware to facilitate the connection of future quantum computers using transducers or converters to send information from the microwave domain to the optical domain.

“In the microwave domain, we work at gigahertz, and in the optical domain, we work at terahertz. There’s a huge energy gap between them. You cannot convert information from one to another. So, you need some bridges. This bridge is something we are trying to develop,” said Barzanjeh.

I asked Barzanjeh how far we are from these future quantum computers. “We are far, definitely far. There are always people mentioning we are five to ten years away —15 years ago, it was the same thing,” he said.

In addition to detrimental loss and noise, scalability presents a significant challenge in the advancement of quantum computers. However, we do not need to look to the future to appreciate the applications of quantum research. For example, if you have ever undergone an MRI scan in a hospital, you have directly benefited from quantum sensing. MRI machines take advantage of quantum principles to achieve better results.

Barzanjeh’s lab is also busy developing new types of quantum microscopes. These microscopes offer comparable resolution to classical microscopes but with the added advantage of being non-invasive and non-damaging to cells.

“If you get your eyes checked, for example, the doctor needs to see different layers of your eye. To get a better signal, they have to increase the power of the light used, which will damage cells. Quantum technologies use extremely low power and extremely low emission. It might damage cells, but the order of power we’re using is extremely low, and this damage is extremely minor and negligible. So, it’s safe,” said Barzanjeh.

As we look forward to quantum computers, we can all appreciate the present benefits of quantum technology. If you are eager to follow along with the research coming out of the Barzanjeh lab, you can keep up with their publications here. The collaboration between the University of Calgary and PASQAL will expand research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students. This key partnership will streamline the process for students to find an industry partner to secure a Mitacs program.

For more information, interested students can explore these programs and apply here.

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