Students and researchers at the University of Maryland are joining the world's top scientists racing to build the first practical quantum computer, a device that could solve some of the most difficult questions in science.

If successfully developed, quantum computers could be used for very specific and advanced operations; calculations such as cryptography and business logistics would be able to be performed much faster than a regular computer, said Kristi Beck, a post-doctoral student in the Joint Quantum Information group at this university.

On Aug. 7, the National Science Foundation awarded a $15 million grant to this university and six other institutions across the country to pursue this project.

"It opens the door to problems that could never, ever be solved otherwise," said Chris Monroe, a physics professor at this university and the founder of quantum research company IonQ. "It makes weird stuff that we do in the basement of the physics building useful to anybody on the street. That's the opportunity."

Monroe and Alexey Gorshkov, an adjunct professor at this university, will lead the project. Monroe said he'll develop the hardware, while Gorshkov will be the theorist behind it.

The project will span the next five years, Monroe said.

"What this specific grant allows us to do is interact in a more purposeful and exciting way with everyone and across all of these disciplines to make it work," Gorshkov said.

An ion trap, the foundation technology to build a quantum computer. (Courtesy of S. Debnath and E. Edwards of the Joint Quantum Institute).
An ion trap, the foundation technology to build a quantum computer. (Courtesy of S. Debnath and E. Edwards of the Joint Quantum Institute).

Researchers from the seven institutions in the grant — from computer science, physics, engineering and other fields — will all collaborate on their findings.

The grant funds a program known as the Software-Tailored Architecture for Quantum co-design, which aims to study the hardware and software necessary to develop a functional quantum computer, Gorshkov said. STAQ will also explore various applications of this new technology.

"We're going to build it and program it and hopefully find new applications," Monroe said. "This is a fringe field, in a way."

There are currently much smaller and less useful quantum computers in existence that mainly serve as "preliminary proof" that a practical quantum computer can be achieved, said Andrew Childs, co-director for the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science.

"The devices that we have now are definitely stepping stones to having a full-fledged quantum computer," Childs said. "There's still a lot more to be done."

Despite the prospective applications of the quantum computer, it is still unclear what will result from the project, Gorshkov said.

Increasing efficiency in financial, business and pharmaceutical industries are also goals of the project, Monroe said.

"These are huge sectors of society that are not directly related to fundamental science or fundamental quantum physics and this is what we need to find," Monroe said. "Optimization is a very general and important task that quantum computers can be used for."

Large technology companies such as Google and Intel are also battling to create the first useful quantum computer, which Monroe said demonstrates the vast possibility and promise of this technology.

"It's a big challenge," said Childs. "We think that quantum computers have a lot of promise. But there are a lot of very difficult challenges and it's going to take a lot of work."