Multidisciplinary team wins $1M grant from Keck Foundation

A cross-campus collaboration led by Cornell engineering professor Darrell Schlom has been awarded $1 million from the W.M. Keck Foundation to transition its groundbreaking research from bold theory, based on extensive calculation, to creating a specific topological superconducting material that could pave the way to quantum computing.

“We have state-of-the-art capabilities to make artificial materials and interrogate their properties that are relevant to quantum computing, and this is a particularly exciting system for materials discovery because of its complexity and potential payoff,” said Schlom, the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Industrial Chemistry in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Other team members are J.C. Seamus Davis, the James Gilbert White Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences; Craig Fennie, associate professor of applied and engineering physics; Eun-Ah Kim, associate professor of physics; and Kyle Shen, associate professor of physics.

The team’s project is titled “A Materials-by-Design Approach to an Odd-Parity Topological Superconductor,” and its goal is to discover a material that will lay the foundation for a stable and scalable quantum computing technology.

“There’s an enormous gold rush in quantum computing,” Davis said. “All the major information tech corporations are sinking good fractions of a billion dollars a year into quantum computing, because they all believe it will revolutionize information technology. And they’re right.”

One of the problems, which the Cornell group will tackle with this funding: In virtually all quantum computing implementations to date, one of the states is an excited state that must, by its nature, decay spontaneously into its ground state.

This “decoherence” quickly destroys the quantum calculation, and no mitigation exists for this fundamental effect.

“It’s a really important problem in quantum computing,” Schlom said. “To challenge this problem today really takes great minds working together, and I think we have not only the expertise, but also the strong desire to tackle this tough problem that is bigger than any of us working alone could conquer.”

The group’s proposal involves creating an artificial material in which pairs of ground-state non-abelian anyons can be braided in two dimensions. An anyon is a typically electronic quantum state that, if transported around another anyon, develops a quantum phase that can take on any value depending on the type of anyon.

And crucial to quantum computing: An anyon is not an excited state and, therefore, does not suffer decoherence. Quantum information would be preserved.

The group aims to create a new artificial material, with special properties and unique elementary particles that would support topological quantum computing. The group will leverage its expertise in several areas:

  • Davis has developed perhaps the world’s most precise spectroscopic imaging scanning tunneling microscope (SI-STM);
  • Schlom is a world leader in the area of molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), having worked in that area for more than 30 years;
  • Shen is an expert in the spectroscopic imaging technique angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES); and
  • Fennie and Kim are experts in materials-by-design and correlated electron theory, respectively.

The Keck Foundation grant will make use of a unique facility that the group began building in 2013 with a three-year, $4.13 million grant from the Moore Foundation. That grant funded construction of the Moore CONQUEST (Creation and Observation of Novel Quantum Electronic Structures) facility in the Physical Sciences Building, which houses the group’s MBE+ARPES+SI-STM system.

The hardware, plus the theoretical predictions of Kim and Fennie, positions the group well to achieve its goal, Davis said.

“Of all the possible opportunities for making this new technology for topological quantum computing, as far as I know, this is the best one,” he said.

The 36-month grant comes from the Keck Foundation, which supports science, engineering and medical research along with undergraduate education.

Based in Los Angeles, the Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company.  The foundation’s grant-making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. For more information, please visit the foundation's website.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Eun-Ah Kim Kyle Shen