NSF invests $29 million in quantum sensing research

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Following a windfall of public investment in quantum sensor applications, experts said that more federal funding should go toward similar QIST research efforts with near-term use cases.

The National Science Foundation is making a $29 million investment in advancing new quantum information sciences research to help spur a new iteration of technologies rooted in quantum mechanics.

Announced Tuesday, NSF will disperse the funding across 18 research teams based out of U.S. universities, with each team awarded around $1 million to $2 million over a four-year timeframe. 

The research topic underpinning each project is innovation in quantum sensing technologies, whose sensitivity offers the advanced and precise measurement of changes in the temperatures, movement, direction and other characteristics of subatomic particles. 

Specific focus areas for the awardees include constructing a quantum-enhanced telescope that runs on entangled photons, developing portable atomic clocks to better measure shifts in the Earth’s gravitational field at different altitudes and investigating new techniques for visualizing inside live cells to pursue advanced medical treatments. 

“For decades, scientific exploration at the quantum scale has yielded surprising discoveries about how our universe works — and tantalizing possibilities for quantum-enabled technologies,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a press release. “We are now taking the next step in quantum research through these projects and others, which combine fundamental research with potential applications that can positively impact our lives, our economic prosperity and our competitiveness as a nation.”

Such robust public investment is sorely needed, according to private sector leaders. Allison Schwartz, the global government relations and public affairs leader for D-Wave, a computing company that leverages quantum annealing processes for problem solving, said that the federal funding focus should be pivoting toward investing in more near-term quantum sciences applications. 

“There is almost no or little focus on anything about using the technology in the near term,” she told Nextgov/FCW

Schwartz concedes that while basic research in emerging sciences and technologies like QIST is critically important, the U.S. needs to temper these efforts with a focus on applications to keep up with other countries' efforts. 

These fundamental research programs abound in the text of the National Quantum Initiative Act, which will need congressional reauthorization this September. Schwartz said that much has changed in the quantum technology landscape in the five years since the bill was signed into law, and renewed ratification should include an “expanded focus of near-term uses of the technology.”