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National Quantum Design Facility Planned for CU Boulder Campus

From left to right, Aju Jugessur, Juliet Gopinath, Scott Diddams and Cindy Regal, who will lead the realization of a new facility at CU Boulder for making incredibly small devices. (Credit: Patrick Campbell/CU Boulder)

The U.S. National Science Foundation is awarding a $20 million grant to CU Boulder to launch a facility known as the National Quantum Nanofab (NQN). In this facility, Colorado researchers and quantum specialists from around the country will be able to design and build incredibly small devices that tap into the world of atoms and photons — the tiny packets of energy that make up light.

Principal Investigator Scott Diddams, professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, alongside a team of physicists and engineers, will lead the realization of this maker space. Diddams said it will help transform discoveries from the quantum world into technologies and devices that can have greater impact on society, and shore up a rapidly growing sector of Colorado’s economy.

Tiny means big news in the quantum world. 

“Fundamentally, quantum is small,” Diddams said. “A focus of the NQN will be on building quantum systems based on single ions, atoms and photons. So the devices on chips that we’re building are necessarily going to be small, too.”

In this case, small means much smaller than the width of a human hair.

Diddams noted that it will take about five years to build the facility: a clean room and nanofabrication tools housed in a new annex to the Sustainable, Energy and Environment Laboratory (SEEL) building on CU Boulder’s East Campus. It will be supported and connected to the existing Colorado Shared Instrumentation in Nanofabrication and Characterization(COSINC) characterization and cleanroom facilities. The space will be sealed up tight to prevent dust or other contaminants from damaging those sensitive technologies, and anyone entering will need to wear a clean room “bunny suit,” shoe covers and more.

Once the facility is complete, users from CU Boulder, Colorado industry and government labs and from across the United States, will be able to employ the various nanofabrication tools to begin creating new technologies. These may include the core integrated components of clocks that can keep time based on the “ticking” of atoms or quantum computer chips that may outperform the fastest computers on the market today. 

“This new facility will significantly enhance CU Boulder’s quantum ecosystem by offering access to fabrication facilities that are unparalleled in the nation,” said Massimo Ruzzene, vice chancellor for Research and Innovation and dean of the institutes at CU Boulder. “This award further acknowledges the intellectual leadership of our quantum researchers, and the resulting facility will be transformational in terms of translating quantum discoveries into impactful technologies.”

Co-investigators on the Nanofab facility include Juliet Gopinath, professor of electrical, computer and energy engineering; Aju Jugessur, senior director of CU Boulder’s COSINC facility; and Cindy Regal, Baur-SPIE Chair in Optical Physics and Photonics at JILA. 

The growing quantum economy

Quantum technologies are on their way toward becoming a major slice of Colorado’s economy. The state government estimates the quantum industry could add thousands of jobs to Colorado over the next decade.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce designated Colorado as a tech hub for quantum technology. In May, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill that will provide access to $74 million in state investment to support the local quantum industry — which will go into effect if Elevate Quantum, a coalition of 120 organizations in the Rocky Mountain West, which includes CU Boulder as a prime contributor, secures a federal implementation grant from the Economic Development Administration (EDA).

To make those aspirations a reality, researchers will need to find new ways to take the scientific advances that presently fill up entire rooms, shrink them down and manufacture them at scale.

The Nanofab facility is where this kind of innovation will happen. Traditional technologies, for example, largely depend on computer chips made of silicon. Quantum technologies, however, will be made of a wider range of materials with names like nitride, tantalum and lithium niobate that often need to operate in vacuum or at extremely cold temperatures near absolute zero. 

“NSF invests in research infrastructure to ensure U.S. researchers across the nation are at the forefront of science and engineering,” said Susan Margulies, NSF assistant director for engineering. “The NSF National Quantum Nanofab will enable U.S. leadership in the development and manufacturing of quantum devices and help prepare our future quantum workforce.”

Diddams imagines that techniques developed in the new facility will one day lead to companies manufacturing wafers about the size of an LP record that contain not one but thousands of individual quantum chips.

“This will give us capabilities to continue to make scientific advances, but also, in parallel, solve problems that will lead to actual devices,” he said.

Quantum experts of the future

The facility will help produce something else: quantum savvy people. The space will provide students from CU Boulder and other institutions, including local community colleges, the chance to learn the ins and outs of making nanodevices — feeding Colorado’s growing need for an experienced quantum workforce.

“What’s going to make our facility unique is the community around it,” Diddams said. “I expect that as professors and students work in there and brush shoulders with people from our local companies, new opportunities will arise for people to learn and innovate together.”

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