Quantum computing: How early funding from U.S. Navy and Army supports groundbreaking technology

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For Immediate Release: September 01, 2020

By Felipe Reisch, Office of Naval Research Global

ARLINGTON, Va.—Quantum computers may be able to help create new pharmaceuticals, understand chemical reactions, solve certain problems that are otherwise intractable, create new materials and allow for highly disruptive applications in numerous sectors.

In this world of opportunities, Universal Quantum, a disruptive new player on the global quantum computing stage, recently announced it raised $4.5 million in funding. The company is set to develop its groundbreaking new quantum computing approach and compete with the world’s biggest quantum computing companies, with backing from highly influential tech investors.

The University of Sussex spin-off company, founded by quantum computing experts Professor Winfried Hensinger and Dr. Sebastian Weidt in 2018, has the goal of building the world’s first large-scale quantum computer with Hensinger as the chief scientist and chairman and Weidt as the chief executive officer. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global and the Army Research Office (ARO)—an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory—both support Hensinger’s basic research in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex.

Hensinger said, “Practical quantum computers have been described as one of the holy grails of science due to their disruptive capabilities across a wide range of sectors such as finance, drug discovery and chemical reactions, intelligence and defense, to name a few.”

He added, “The answer to cure Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Parkinson's disease, dementia and some cancers may come from a better understanding of protein folding. Unfortunately, simulating protein folding on conventional computers or even supercomputers is extremely challenging due to the limited computational resources available. Quantum computers may enable us to understand protein folding, and contribute to solving one of the biggest of all human challenges—our aging society.”

Revolutionary approach

Hensinger and Weidt have developed a radical new approach to building a quantum computer. While some companies have created small quantum machines, Universal Quantum believes that only its technology, on a reasonable time scale, has a realistic opportunity of being scaled up into machines large enough to unleash the huge potential of quantum computing.

Key to Universal Quantum’s appeal are some fundamental differences in its approach to building a large-scale trapped ion quantum computer. All of the leading platforms for quantum computers have challenges related to scaling them up to the large number of qubits needed for meaningful computations. For many trapped ion systems, one of these challenges is that number of laser beams required in the system grows linearly with the number of qubits. At small numbers of qubits, this is tractable, but as the systems grow in size the number of lasers becomes a challenge. The approach the Hensinger group has developed eliminates the need for many of those lasers by manipulating the qubits in a different way.

Dr. Andrey Kanaev, ONR Global London science director, said, “This new approach allows much better scaling of the numbers of qubits, since there is no need for multiple very high-quality lasers focused with micron scale accuracy per qubit. Additionally, the global microwave tones needed can be generated using widely available RF technology borrowed from cell phone technology.”

Professor Hensinger, added, “We recently invented a method for trapped ion quantum computing where this scaling vanishes, significantly reducing the difficulty of producing a practical quantum computer. Instead of using laser beams for quantum gate execution, our approach makes use of proven microwave technology, such as that used in mobile phones.”

“When the Army first started supporting Professor Hensinger’s research at the University of Sussex in 2012, it was a very high-risk method to potentially achieve scalable quantum computing,” said Dr. Sara Gamble, quantum information science program manager at the ARO. “The research progress made over the past several years has been excellent, and we look forward to continuing research aimed at overcoming the many remaining scientific challenges facing the quantum computing community in developing scalable systems.”

In the next decade, Quantum Computation will become a very disruptive technology in many areas, including in several crucial defense applications. The areas that will likely be the first to feel the impact of quantum computation will be materials science, chemistry and (potentially) artificial intelligence/deep learning.

In the case of material science and chemistry, the inherent capability to efficiently model large and highly complex quantum mechanical systems will enable much higher fidelity calculations and prediction of the physical characteristics of new materials and chemical processes. Using even state-of-the-art supercomputers (classical), there are currently many approximations and assumption needed to simplify the numerical calculations performed when modeling new materials and complex chemical processes.

Dr. Kanaev said, “Quantum computation is known to enable breakthroughs in such modeling and simulation. Such capabilities will have many applications relevant to the Navy—for example, cost-effective and rapid computational exploration of new materials. In AI/deep learning, there are indications, both theory and early experimentation, that a large-scale, high-fidelity quantum computation will provide advantages in performance with respect to classical computers.”

ONR Global sponsors scientific efforts outside of the U.S., working with scientists and partners worldwide to discover and advance naval capabilities.

Office of Naval Research
Corporate Strategic Communications
875 N. Randolph St., #1225-D
Arlington, Va., 22203-1771
Office: (703) 696-5031
Fax: (703) 696-5940
E-mail: onrpublicaffairs@navy.mil
Web: www.onr.navy.mil/onr-global
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/onrglobal

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