Grainger Engineering researchers launch world's first publicly available quantum network

11/7/2023 Aaron Seidlitz

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

Physics professors Virginia “Gina” Lorenz and Paul Kwiat and their research teams from The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign introduced the world’s first publicly available quantum network at The Urbana Free Library on Saturday, Nov. 4. 

The day’s event began at 1 p.m. and connected the public to quantum science through interactive demos, while also serving up liquid nitrogen ice cream and games for participants of all ages

Photo Credit: Lloyd DeGrane Photography

Although quantum science is already integrated into everyday life, through technology ranging from MRI machines to GPS, it also remains detached from many people’s purview considering the complexity of the discussion.

Lorenz and Kwiat believe that now is the time for people of all ages to access this new scientific frontier in real time, to better comprehend it and imagine the new possibilities available to all of us in the 21st century.

That’s why the University of Illinois partnered with the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) fiber optic network and The Urbana Free Library to make real quantum connections over optical fiber. 

“What I study, quantum optics, is amazing because it brings profound ideas about the universe together in experiments that fit on a table,” Lorenz said. “You can see that the world follows quantum rules with just a few components that you set up and adjust with your own hands. I want people to experience that and think, ‘Yeah, this is something I can do, too!’”

The local community returned the professors’ enthusiasm, as a packed crowd filled the viewing room at the library with a noticeable energy to see the professors’ display and witness their ingenuity. 

Working with students, colleagues, and staff from Grainger Engineering, and in collaboration with the library, Lorenz and Kwiat linked the local Urbana Free Library to the Illinois campus. 

Key to this mix of research and citizen science is an existing public fiber-optic network that spans Champaign and Urbana. While such networks are widely used in standard telecom technology, they can be repurposed to support quantum communication channels, even in this early stage of development. The twin cities have a public fiber-optic network – the UC2B network – that was laid with funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.

“The UC2B network started to create something special years ago, and it is wonderful to see that it’s worth is still being uniquely leveraged,” said Paul Hixson, former Illinois CIO and current co-chair of the UC2B board. “When we built the original fiber backbone for this community, our immediate intent was to extend high speed connectivity at an affordable price to critical community anchor institutions, and to individual households. We wanted our community to be able to participate in cutting edge developments that we knew would be coming in the near future. 

“Another critical focus of the UC2B network from its beginning has always been to provide traditionally underserved communities access to these cutting-edge technologies, and it’s clear that Illinois professors Lorenz and Kwiat continue to emphasize that important aspect.”

Indeed, Lorenz believes that for these technologies to fully deliver on their promise, they must be available to everyone regardless of training and background.

“We want to get everyone excited about quantum technology,” she said. “Maybe they’ll think about things in a way that scientists haven’t thought about. Maybe they’ll ask questions that no one has really got an answer to, even if it’s something like, ‘Why not use it like this?’ Or perhaps they will ask important ethical questions around the technology, or be inspired to incorporate it in art.”

In addition, Kwiat was instrumental in establishing a quantum network to link the University of Illinois to other institutions in the Chicago Quantum Exchange: Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab, and the University of Chicago. The collaboration plans for connecting this research quantum network with the public network, offering additional opportunities to study the challenges of implementing networks outside laboratory conditions.

The NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks provided seed funding for the project. The institute director, Illinois Physics Professor Brian DeMarco, said, “This public quantum network, a truly genius project from Gina Lorenz, is a great example of all the special things happening with quantum research at the University of Illinois right now. It highlights the power of community coming together and the importance of research initiatives such as the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center, academia-industry partnerships, and cross-institutional collaborations through the Chicago Quantum Exchange.”

Those who attended the event got to see for themselves how quantum particles can "affect" each other no matter the distance between them, through a live demonstration of the experiment for which the physics Nobel prize was awarded in 2022.

People of all ages enjoyed the open house at the Urbana Free Library on Nov. 4, 2023.
Photo Credit: Lloyd DeGrane Photography
People of all ages enjoyed the open house at the Urbana Free Library on Nov. 4, 2023.

“The Urbana Free Library was honored to be the site of the first publicly accessibly quantum network in the world,” said Celeste Choate, Urbana Free Library executive director. “Our library, and libraries in general, serve as essential community hubs, and are uniquely qualified to combine public access, technology, and educational opportunities for all ages. 

“We encouraged our patrons to visit the Library for the launch event (and try some liquid nitrogen ice cream!) to engage with this new technology, which became accessible to the public at the library from then on. It is through partnerships like this – between esteemed researchers and public services – that technology can have meaningful impact.”

As Dean of Grainger Engineering, Rashid Bashir consistently encourages fellow researchers to push the boundaries of what’s possible, knowing that support is there for those in this state and country ready to tackle society’s next great challenges.

“When we discuss solving problems first, Grainger Engineers have proven time and again that this comes from curious and effective minds pushing scientific advancement forward,” Bashir said. “Professors Lorenz and Kwiat have developed a truly unique public quantum network connection. This is the only of its kind, and it’s going to help our state and our nation as we further establish new developments in quantum computing.”

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This story was published November 7, 2023.