Updated 4 pm
Just a few years ago, quantum technology seemed like something out of a science fiction movie.
But now, university and scientific leaders in Chicago are looking to make the Chicagoland area a hub for this growing research field — a move that could have real-world implications in medicine, cybersecurity, communication, and more.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced Tuesday a partnership with the University of Chicago and Illinois’ two national laboratories to expand quantum technology research. The state’s flagship public university also is investing $15 million to establish the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center at the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Quantum physics is the study of particles at the atomic or subatomic level. At that small size, equations that determine the basics physics of how everyday things move don’t apply.
“The possibilities of this technology can seem outlandish at first blush,” David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange and professor at UChicago, said at a news conference in Hyde Park. “It’s really tough to predict where these techs are going to go. One of the most exciting things is that we think the biggest application is beyond what we’re thinking of today.”
U of I is joining UChicago’s Chicago Quantum Exchange, which was launched in Hyde Park last year with Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. Together, these institutions will create one of the largest teams for quantum research in the world, with more than 100 scientists and engineers.
“The Chicago Quantum Exchange will dramatically accelerate the arrival of a new era of innovation and discovery,” said Robert Jones, chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And it will anchor the quantum revolution right here in Chicago, right here in the state of Illinois.”
U of I leaders said the partnership will be a part of the new Discovery Partners Institute, a planned tech hub in Chicago’s South Loop that will be run by the U of I system.
The Chicago Quantum Exchange already has projects underway, including one announced last week that could create an unhackable network. Scientists are testing one of the world’s largest quantum communication links across the 30 miles between Lemont and Batavia. Quantum technology is also sparking the interest of the federal government. In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill committing $1.275 billion to quantum research over the next decade. Local leaders are hoping this partnership can make Chicago a national leader in those research efforts.
“The moment is now and the place is Chicago,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at the news conference. “This is a milestone in research worldwide and it'll be transformative and it will bring together four institutions that, to be honest, were working alongside each other, but never together.”
Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.