For decades, a large-scale quantum computer has only been a theoretical possibility. Yet, the wide range of potential applications of quantum computing has led to numerous universities and corporations dedicating significant resources to unlocking its potential. Quantum computing promises to solve computational problems that are too complex for even the most advanced classical computer.
Unlocking quantum computing’s potential
EeroQ, a Chicago-based startup, was founded to make large-scale quantum computing a reality. EeroQ hopes its approach to quantum computing will lead to it being used to address a wide array of computational challenges, including computational problems in cryptography, cybersecurity, optimization, and drug development, to name a few. “Those are big, exciting computational problems that quantum computers could have a big impact on. I get excited about the drug discovery stuff; I think that it’s really cool, and it would be taking, what has been up to this point, physics research and using it to do something powerful, like developing new materials,” exclaimed EeroQ co-founder and current Chief Science Officer Johannes Pollanen.
Pollanen, an Associate Professor, and Jerry Cowen, Chair of Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University (MSU), are experts in quantum systems. Since joining MSU’s faculty in 2016, Pollanen’s research group has focused their research in combining quantum systems having fundamentally distinct, but interacting, degrees of freedom to create hybrid systems that exhibit altogether new phenomena or capabilities.
Pollanen also serves as the Principal Investigator of the Laboratory for Hybrid Quantum Systems, as Associate Director of the MSU Center for Quantum Computing Science and Engineering, and is a co- founder and board member of the Midwest Quantum Collaboratory.
Nick Farina, co-founder and CEO of EeroQ, is also excited about the drug discovery application of quantum computing technology, claiming, “a quantum computer can be the cornerstone of a revolution in the development of new medicines, and that is really exciting.” Farina also cites the application of a large-scale quantum computer in developing next-generation batteries, some possibly powerful enough to power an electric airplane, which he suggests “would have a tremendous impact on the climate.”
Farina has known Pollanen for a long time and was fascinated when Pollanen introduced him to the possibility of a new method to create a large-scale quantum computing device. “When he told me that he thought he knew a better way to build a quantum computer, once I realized what the implications for the world would be if there were to be a successful one, I was immediately captivated, and it was like nothing that I had ever done before,” exclaimed Farina, adding, “I realized that this was an opportunity to really reinvent computing. The chance to be part of that ground floor is really exciting.”
Farina and Pollanen, together with David Rees, founded EeroQ, a quantum hardware startup dedicated to building a large-scale quantum computer using a trapped- electron, spin-based technique initially developed at MSU. “The base technology for EeroQ is based on a joint invention between MSU and EeroQ. Pollanen and his post-doc student Niyaz Beysengulov collaborated with David Rees from EeroQ and invented a new concept for a qubit,” explained Raymond DeVito, Technology Manager at MSU Technologies (MSUT). DeVito went on to explain, “EeroQ started with access to this invention since it was a joint invention. Once EeroQ gained momentum as a business, they requested license to MSU’s rights and now have all the rights to this patent with an exclusive license from MSU to MSU’s share of the rights.”
Although many companies are pursuing the development of a large-scale quantum computer, EeroQ’s approach differs from that of many of its would-be competitors.
“We are using trapped electrons that we place in a vacuum, and we use the magnetism of that electron as the fundamental building block for that quantum computer,” explained Pollanen. “We like this system because ultimately, these electrons can be packed in quite tightly. So you can get many of the basic elements, like the qubits you need for building the quantum computer, into a tight space. Then you can ultimately do logic operations due to computation quite fast.”
This trapped electron approach was first proposed at MSU in 1999 by Mark Dykman, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. When Pollanen first came to MSU, he made it his goal to expand on Dykman’s theory and bring the idea to fruition, precisely what he is doing at EeroQ. “I was inspired by Mark’s original theory because of how he clearly identified that electron qubits floating above superfluid helium would be shielded from sources of noise and decoherence by the nearly perfect superfluid substrate. In fact, even before Mark’s theory, electrons on helium
were known to be the purest, most defect- free, low-dimensional electron system in condensed matter. The field of quantum computing is always looking for better, more noise-free hardware, and it seemed to me that electrons on helium were a great foundation from which to try and build a new technology,” said Pollanen.
Those are big, exciting computational problems that quantum computers could have a big impact on. I get excited about the drug discovery stuff; I think that it’s really cool, and it would be taking physics and using it to do something powerful, like developing new materials.”
– Johannes Pollanen – EeroQ co-founder and current Chief Science Officer and Assistant Professor and Principal Investigator leading the Laboratory for Hybrid Quantum Systems at MSU
Although EeroQ’s qubit technology is at an earlier stage of engineering than some other quibits, as it is brought to maturity, it will offer some key advantages over competing platforms. These include exceptionally long coherence times, high qubit connectivity, CMOS compatibility, fast gates, and the ability to fit millions of electrons on a single chip, eliminating the need for modular designs.
Qubits, short for quantum bits, are the fundamental bits of information needed to create a quantum computing device. While qubits can be made from trapped atoms, or in other cases, circuits made of superconducting materials, for EeroQ, the qubit is based on trapped electrons floating on helium. “It is not clear which of these is best yet for making a large-scale quantum computer, but ultimately, we think it’s going to be the trapped electrons for a number of reasons,” said Pollanen.
EeroQ is banking on its unique trapped electron technology setting it apart from many other startups with the same goal. “We’ve kind of cornered the market on the trapped electron approach,” explained Pollanen. “Our technical team has a lot of expertise in this system; it’s technically niche and also very challenging. There aren’t many folks that know how to do it, and essentially, we have nearly all of them at EeroQ. ”
When asked about the progress EeroQ has made, Farina said they could have a device ready for commercial use within 3-4 years. “We are getting much closer. The progress in quantum computing has been linear in almost all the different types of quantum computing, and we think the rate of speed that we can build this once it starts to work can be exponential,” Farina claimed. Due to the unique approach EeroQ is taking, it will be able to be produced in completely standard chip manufacturing facilities. “What’s exciting about this technology and what makes it practical and easier to understand is that what we are doing is we are just designing a computer chip that looks and feels identical to what people have in their computers at home,” explained Farina. “The only difference, which is obviously a big difference, is that we then add a layer of superfluid helium on top of that computer chip, and then we control these single electrons on top of that helium.”
Whether it be optimization, cryptography, drug discovery, or data decryption, the work EeroQ is making promises to potentially revolutionize many industries. “EeroQ’s goal over time is to build something that is useful for any company,” said Farina. “The potential of quantum computing has been known for a while, and now, we’re working to make them come true.”