LSU Gears Up for Quantum Race

Quantum experts from around the country will visit campus for funding-focused workshop February 8-9.


BATON ROUGE — When China launched the world’s first quantum science satellite in August of 2016, Jonathan Dowling, LSU professor and Hearne Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, called it a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first man-made Earth satellite in 1957, and with it, the Space Race.

Now Dowling, along with Ward Plummer, LSU Boyd Professor of Physics and a renowned expert on quantum materials, are gathering scholars from across the U.S. for a two-day workshop at the LSU Center for Computation and Technology (CCT) to map local and national expertise and build relationships for various research projects in the ongoing Quantum Race.

Jonathan Dowling and Ward Plummer

Jonathan Dowling and Ward Plummer in Dowling’s office at the LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, where there are three clocks that don’t work, one of which occasionally runs backwards.Elsa Hahne/LSU

Last September, the National Science & Technology Council published a document titled the National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science, which outlined an imminent need to “create a visible, systematic, national approach to quantum information research and development.” Then, on December 22, President Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act into law. The new law proposes to spend over $1.2 billion over the next five years to establish a coordinated effort to advance quantum information science and technology. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DoE) and the Department of Defense (DoD) have been tasked with standing up five research centers, wielding budgets of $10 million, $25 million and $1 billion, respectively.

“One of the main objectives of the workshop is to position LSU to lead a Louisiana proposal for an anticipated ‘Enabling Quantum’ call for EPSCoR proposals,” says Plummer, referring to an Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, already offered by government agencies such as the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in an attempt to level the playing field between rich and poor states—Louisiana is a current EPSCoR state.

“This workshop is about getting ourselves in gear so, if there’s a call, we’ll have accumulated a set of experts around the country that can work together,” Plummer continues, pointing to his colleague Dowling as one of the main reasons LSU holds a competitive edge—Dowling has published hundreds of academic papers on quantum technology since the mid-1980s.

“I warned people in the Department of Defense 10 years ago that the Chinese were pulling ahead of us,” Dowling says. “I was told, ‘This is propaganda.’ And then, before the Chinese quantum satellite was launched, I was told that it would blow up on the launch pad. But then I saw the data in May of 2017 and my mouth just kind of fell onto the table. They did all of the proposed experiments—quantum entanglement distributed over 1,200 kilometers, and cryptography—they’re securing their internet with quantum cryptography.”

The U.S. relies to a large extent on RSA public key cryptography, which is breakable on a quantum computer. Quantum cryptography relies on private key encryption, and is generally thought to be unbreakable. Also, there’s a quantum way of distributing the keys, and since you cannot make a copy of a quantum state (attempting to copy would just destroy the keys), quantum cryptography is essentially unhackable.

“The Chinese are putting over a billion dollars into a new Science City in Beijing and four other science cities and half of each one of them is quantum something-or-other,” Plummer said. “Three thousand acres given by the City of Beijing, and the mayor gives a talk about how this is the best thing for the city because they’re going to bring in all of these bright people who will develop companies and everyone will make money. Could you imagine a mayor of any city in the United States saying that?”

“It would be like the mayor of New York saying, ‘We’ll give you Manhattan,’” Dowling adds.

Miniature model of the Chinese quantum satellite

Jonathan Dowling’s brass model of the Chinese quantum satellite. Elsa Hahne/LSU

LSU’s Enabling Quantum Materials workshop is an attempt to put LSU on the map on a national scale. Gene Mele, Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania and recent recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, will give the keynote address. He’ll also give the Physics and Astronomy Seminar at the LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy on Thursday, February 7, preceding the workshop.

“Someone’s going to come and say, ‘What’s this quantum technology initiative in Louisiana?’,” Dowling says. “And we don’t want the answer to be, ‘What quantum technology initiative?’ Many people just aren’t aware that we have this expertise here at LSU.”

There are more than a dozen LSU faculty currently working within the fields of quantum research (some of whom are listed below). Their areas of expertise span quantum optics and sensors, quantum materials, quantum imaging, quantum computing and quantum cryptography.

“We have a whole set of graduate level courses and undergraduate level training in quantum technologies as well,” Dowling adds. “I have 15 Ph.D. students, three undergrads, a high-school student and a post-doc. We could easily double that with additional faculty lines.”

“Most universities can’t figure out if quantum materials people belong in chemistry, physics, or engineering,” Plummer continues. “But here at LSU, somehow they just hired them. We have really good materials people. We have all the pieces. There’s always a bias for schools on the West Coast or in the Northeast when it comes to large grants, but we have the people here to compete with anybody.”

“Bringing in more faculty, post-docs, the ability to bring in more students, more lab space—this is what we’re looking for,” Dowling concludes. “I knew this day was coming, I just didn’t know if it would come after I’d retired or died. And thanks to the Chinese, we’re here. Now everybody wants to know what’s going on.”


For more information on the Enabling Quantum Materials Workshop, which is co-sponsored by the Office of Research & Economic Development (ORED), the Center for Computation & Technology (CCT), the Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices (CAMD), the Department of Physics & Astronomy, and the College of Science, visit CCT's website.

The National Quantum Initiative Act defines quantum information science as "the storage, transmission, manipulation, or measurement of information that is encoded in systems that can only be described by the laws of quantum physics."


LSU faculty listed as quantum experts on a recent internal research grant application, in alphabetical order:

Jonathan Dowling, Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Mark Jarrell, Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Rongying Jin, Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Omar Magana-Loaiza, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Kevin McPeak, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Nanofabrication Facility
Seung-Jong Park, Professor of Computer Science and CCT
Ward Plummer, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Boyd Professor
Dan Sheehy, Professor of Physics and Astronomy
W. A. Shelton, Professor of Chemical Engineering
Ilya Vehkter, Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Mark Wilde, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and CCT
Weiwei Xie, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Additional experts, not already mentioned above, on Ward Plummer’s National Science Foundation proposal for the new LSU Center for Quantum Dynamics, in alphabetical order:

Dongmei Cao, Director of the Shared Instrumentation Facility and Associate Director of Research Resources at the Office of Research and Economic Development
John DiTusa, Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy
Richard Kurtz, Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Director of the Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices
Phillip Sprunger, Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Scientific Director of the Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices
David Young, Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Jiandi Zhang, Professor of Physics and Astronomy


Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development