Energy’s Undersecretary for Science Provides Update on Forthcoming Quantum Research Centers

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Prompted by a 2018 mandate from the Trump administration, the Energy Department in January released a nearly 100-page funding opportunity announcement pledging up to $625 million to help establish two to five multidisciplinary quantum information science research centers by 2025.

The announcement enlisted those interested from universities, national labs, institutions, agencies, the private sector and beyond to submit pre-applications by Feb. 10, and shortly after receiving early responses, Energy’s Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar shared an initial update on the effort and a peek into the potential power of quantum applications. 

“I think I can say that we have a significant amount of interest,” Dabbar told Nextgov recently. 

President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act in 2018, which set Energy’s quantum center aims into motion. The legislation authorizes more than $1 billion to advance the research and development of quantum technologies over the next five years and includes a 10-year plan to “accelerate development of quantum information science and technology applications.” The bill directs three agencies—the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and Energy—to execute investment plans into quantum information science and technologies. Dabbar noted that while Energy focuses on standing up the centers, NSF’s efforts hone in on quantum education programs and workforce training, and NIST is targeting commercial aspects and promoting partnerships across public and private realms through the development of a quantum consortium. 

“Now, obviously, there's great overlap between all three of us in these areas,” he added.

In May 2019, Energy launched a request for information to gauge stakeholder interest and help determine and define what the centers could eventually be. The RFI and subsequent funding announcement deliberately lay out five specific technical areas of interest that the quantum centers could be structured to support: quantum communication, quantum computing and emulation, quantum foundries, quantum devices and sensors, materials and chemistry for quantum information science systems and applications. 

Dabbar explained that an early challenge Energy saw from a technology standpoint was the inherent crossover between those streamlined areas.“If you were focused, for example, on quantum computing, some of the exact same technologies could have applications to quantum internet or it could have applications to quantum sensing,” he said. The more recent funding announcement emphasizes in bold that “each center must integrate sub-topics from at least two of the technical areas of interest” listed. 

Dabbar’s conversation with Nextgov occurred just as the agency received all of its initial pre-proposals from interested parties, but final, formal applications are due April 10. “So we're now actually seeing who's interested in which of those areas, and that will help us define if we do two [centers] or if we do five—or somewhere in between.” 

The president’s budget request for fiscal 2021 put forth a range of quantum investments (including some specifically for the centers), and Dabbar added that Energy already has “total funding for the startup year of the centers” in 2020. But while funding’s not an onset issue, certain details around what will follow are still up in the air—and greatly depend on the formal applications the agency receives. For instance, when asked where exactly the centers might be established across the U.S., Dabbar said it could very much depend on what will be formally proposed. 

“If people are bringing things to the table, such as fabrication facilities and other facilities that would be testbeds for computers, testbeds for quantum communication, like repeater systems—if they have that already, that's an advantage,” the undersecretary said. “We would certainly encourage people who bring facilities to the table as part of their bid, but that doesn't preclude us from dollars going to help build up additional facilities.”

Also still undecided: what the centers could possibly be named. “I think it's something we want to let play out,” Dabbar said. “We'll wait to see what people bid and see how they would name their center. We're certainly open to that.” 

It’s still relatively early for the true potential of quantum applications to be fully realized, but Dabbar—whose professional background encompasses nuclear physics and nuclear engineering—highlighted a revolutionary breakthrough the nascent technology could catalyze. “First of all, quantum computing can, from a theory point of view, be much, much, much faster than digital computers,” he noted. Dabbar cited Google’s recent announcement that its Sycamore quantum computer was able to “do a calculation in three and a half minutes that would have taken Summit, the top supercomputer in the world that we have at Oak Ridge [National Lab] 10,000 years.” 

“That gives you a measure of three minutes to 10,000 years, you're able to calculate things,” he said. “And so, you know, what's an application if we had a much, much, much faster computer, right now, as we look at mapping of, for example, brains?” 

Dabbar said he recently visited the University of California San Francisco and saw their top-end computers, like most other commercial computers, would take over six months to fully map and complete analysis on the data for one person’s brain. “Obviously, that doesn't scale well, right? You can’t have a top-end computer at a major university hospital and eat up the whole machine for one person for six months,” Dabbar said. Energy’s National Lab supercomputers can do that same calculation in a matter of several days, which is a “giant improvement,” he added, “but the ability to process that data is still not optimized to make it practical.” However, quantum computers could hold the power to potentially “do something 10 to the 10th or 10 to the 16th faster” than those top supercomputers, Dabbar noted. 

“Imagine if you're able to get the brain data for a person who's injured and do it in minutes, rather than days or months,” he said. “That gets really practical for the ability of neuroscience professionals at hospitals, to be able to take the data and try to figure out a problem with a person.”

The cutting-edge quantum impacts may be years away, but the undersecretary believes the quantum initiative act, its subsequent mandates and a whole-of-society approach to the forthcoming innovation will help make them a reality.

“There has been a wide amount of interest we've seen relatively promptly after the passage of the [2018] bill, where people got very excited from industry, from universities, who saw, you know, the federal investment in the area as a kind of a trigger for their own interest to accelerate investment and efforts,” he said. “And the amount of interest [in the quantum centers] that we've had is an example of that enthusiasm that that has helped trigger.”