Grant to fund quantum center

UAPB to get bulk of $5M, collaborate with UA, UALR

A marquee to the south entrance of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is pictured Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
A marquee to the south entrance of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is pictured Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

A new grant from the National Science Foundation is helping the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff set up a first-of-its-kind quantum center in the region and establish a Quantum Information Science and Engineering program in the state.

"This is a big [deal] for Arkansas, especially Central Arkansas, and for [us]" as a historically Black college and university, said Mansour Mortazavi, UAPB vice chancellor for Research, Innovation, and Economic Development. This "is a unique opportunity for the state, and we need manpower trained in Arkansas" to work on the technology of the future.

UAPB is one of only three historically Black colleges and universities awarded the 2022 National Science Foundation Expanding Capacity in Quantum Information Science and Engineering program grant. The five-year, $5 million grant supports the advancement of quantum information into a new generation of computers, detectors, and materials, as well as establishing the first graduate program in the physical sciences at UAPB, according to UAPB. The university is collaborating with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to establish the Quantum Information Science and Engineering program.

"We have such good research collaboration, [and] I have a very positive outlook for Arkansas," said Mortazavi, a professor of Quantum Optics at UAPB. UALR and UA-Fayetteville students will "come to our campus, our students will go there -- all working on the same projects -- [and] we can move forward" together.

"This is an especially impressive and ambitious project made possible only through the collaborative expertise that the UA System can provide," said UA System President Donald Bobbitt. "I particularly want to thank Professor Mortazavi for his efforts in leading the project, and the teams at UA-Little Rock and UA-Fayetteville for selflessly assisting [him] in securing this grant."

Quantum Information Science and Engineering is "an area that will enable our students to obtain the advanced study and experience needed for the jobs of the future," UAPB Chancellor Laurence Alexander said in a news release from the university. "This is a major grant from [the National Science Foundation] and a great opportunity for us to work with our university system partners to expand our STEM program offerings."

The quantum center in Pine Bluff will be an integrated research and education program in quantum materials and devices for integrated quantum photonics, which uses photonic -- the physical science of light waves -- integrated circuits to control photonic quantum states (a quantum state is a mathematical entity that provides a probability distribution for the outcomes of each possible measurement on a system) for applications in quantum technologies, according to UAPB.

Quantum technology is an emerging field of physics and engineering, encompassing technologies that rely on the properties of quantum mechanics.

Quantum physics and information "is a really new thing, and there are so many uses and benefits," Mortazavi said. For example, "we can make computers so fast -- amazingly fast -- [and] I see quantum optics as the future."

"There are many, many problems that are so complex that we can make that statement that, actually, classical computers will never be able to solve that problem, not now, not 100 years from now, not 1,000 years from now," IBM Director of Research Dario Gil explained in a "60 Minutes" story aired earlier this month on CBS. "You actually require a different way to represent information and process information. That's what quantum gives you."

As the lead institution on this grant, UAPB will receive $3.5 million, which will enable UAPB to provide quantum laboratory and course content for bachelor's and master's degree students, support Quantum Information Science and Engineering faculty at UAPB, reorient several nanomaterials experts at UALR and UAPB toward quantum applications, and create a hands-on quantum laboratory course for students, according to UAPB.

In addition, UAPB will lead education and outreach activities in hopes of building Quantum Information Science and Engineering student pipelines and promoting engagement of quantum careers with students from kindergarten through high school.

"We're going to start from a younger level," not wait until students reach college to introduce these concepts, so they are prepared "mentally," lest they be "left behind," Mortazavi said. "Quantum shouldn't be intimidating."

Too many students lack expertise in -- or even exposure to -- high-level math and physics prior to college but, through outreach and education like summer camps, their minds can be "developed," he said. There's "so much need for that."

The grant's remaining $1.5 million will be split evenly between UALR and UA-Fayetteville, according to UAPB.

The QuAPB team includes: Qinglong Jiang and Daoyuan Wang, assistant professors in the Department of Chemistry and Physics at UAPB; Grant Wangila, UAPB professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics and interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; Shui-Qing (Fisher) Yu, professor of Electrical Engineering at UA-Fayetteville; Hugh Churchill, UA-Fayetteville associate professor of Physics and associate director of the MonArk NSF Quantum Foundry; Gregory Guisbiers, UALR assistant professor of Physics; and Tansel Karabacak, UALR professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Churchill and Yu will fabricate integrated quantum photonic devices, gather component materials from collaborators throughout the quantum center, and "leverage the heterogeneous integration capabilities of the MonArk NSF Quantum Foundry to produce complete devices for characterization at UAPB," according to UAPB. UA-Fayetteville researchers will also "transfer quantum device characterization expertise to UAPB and provide opportunities for student training in UA-Fayetteville labs and facilities."

"I am excited to be a part of this statewide effort to fabricate unique quantum devices in Fayetteville using materials from Little Rock that will be characterized in Pine Bluff, all in the service of educating students and developing advanced technologies," Churchill said in a news release from UAPB. "Success in our research and education efforts will give [the quantum center] the opportunity to anchor a piece of the rapidly growing quantum economy in Arkansas."

If universities "want to improve, they need research, the new stuff," Mortazavi said. "With research, every day is something new, and we will never be done."

Guisbiers will lead the efforts at UALR to synthesize quantum dots -- semiconductor particles instrumental in nanotechnology and materials science -- that will be used for the development of photonic devices (components for creating, manipulating, or detecting light), according to UAPB. Karabacak and Guisbiers will develop quantum materials research in Central Arkansas and "use two novel techniques -- Pulsed Laser Ablation in Liquids and Hot Water Treatment -- to design free and attached quantum dots, respectively."

This isn't the only significant research grant received recently by UAPB, either. UAPB is one of nine consortia partnerships that the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration's Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Programs awarded grants totaling $40.9 million.

Mortazavi represents UAPB as one of three universities in the consortium on Sensing Energy-efficient Electronics and Photonics with 2D Materials and Integrated Systems for Training the Next-Generation the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration's STEM Workforce. UAPB researchers join the University of North Texas College of Engineering and the University of Texas at Arlington in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories and Argonne National Laboratory to further the science and applications of emerging semiconducting materials toward electronic, photonic, and sensing technologies, according to UAPB. Sensing Energy-efficient Electronics and Photonics will receive $1 million annually for five years.

Too many Arkansas youth "think all the discoveries need to be done by MIT or Harvard, or done by other people, but this is for us, right here in Arkansas," Mortazavi said. "You don't have to look to other people or universities, [because] we are in the position to do it here."

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