Understanding the building blocks of quantum research is key to innovation, say experts

A new donor-supported network in Alberta will help lay the theoretical foundations for a technological revolution on the horizon.


A revolution in quantum technology is on the horizon, but the fundamental research and broad collaboration needed to lay the foundations for these advances is no less important, say experts. (Illustration: Getty Images)

The results of applied and experimental quantum physics research are all around us, having made their way from the lab to the real world in the form of technology like sensors and lasers. But these areas are just two pieces of the larger quantum research puzzle — theoretical research is needed to lay the foundation for advances in the field.

“If you’re wanting to build your fantastic device that’s going to revolutionize the world, you have to understand how that device works,” says Roger Moore, professor and department chair in the University of Alberta’s Department of Physics.

To make the most of applied quantum technology, you need to work backwards in a sense, explains Joseph Maciejko, associate professor in the Department of Physics and director of the Theoretical Physics Institute.

For example, before you make a computer chip, you need to decide on the material it’s made of. To do that, you need an understanding of what it is about the properties of certain materials that would make them best suited to the job at hand — knowledge that’s in the territory of theoretical quantum physics.

“To understand these things you can touch, you need to understand things that you increasingly cannot touch. You have to think about them and you need mathematics to describe things that you can’t really see with your naked eye. This is where the theory comes in,” says Maciejko.

“We experiment with thought”

While experimental and applied quantum physicists can test their hypotheses and innovative ideas in the lab through experiments, theoretical quantum physicists work solely in the realm of thought. That makes collaboration a critical part of the process. 

“That’s how we (theorists) experiment. We experiment with thought, and so we need to bounce ideas around,” says Maciejko.

“Theorists need more theorists around them,” adds Moore. “That sharing, that interchange of ideas, can hugely advance science at a far more rapid pace than someone sitting in their office by themselves trying to solve everything.”

Quantum Horizons Alberta, a new $25-million, provincewide network created through a partnership with the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge, will allow that kind of collaboration between theoretical researchers to flourish. Supported by a group of visionary donors, the network is dedicated to advancing fundamental, theoretical quantum science.

“Our chances of achieving greatness, our chances of achieving a position on the world stage in quantum research, is much greater the more resources within the province we can gather. We wanted to make sure we have the benefit of the bench strength that already exists in all three universities,” says Richard Bird, one of four donors behind the network along with Joanne Cuthbertson, Patrick Daniel and Guy Turcotte.

“The focus of Quantum Horizons Alberta is on building capacity in Alberta, especially when it comes to scientific expertise capacity in the province,” says André McDonald, associate vice-president of strategic research initiatives and performance at the U of A. “The creation of these contiguous nodes of research expertise across the province is what is going to help crystallize and strengthen the pan-Alberta approach to developing research on fundamental quantum science in the province.”

As McDonald explains, the U of A is well positioned as a node within the network, with over $100 million of infrastructure and equipment needed to support fundamental quantum research and training.

“We have all of this physical infrastructure and now what we’re working to do is expand our social infrastructure by bringing on professors, postdoctoral researchers and other trainees.”

“Alberta universities have a long history of quantum science collaboration, and joint achievements to show for it,” says Robert Thompson, associate vice-president (research) and professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary. “Quantum Horizons Alberta will increase quantum capacity across the province, while creating opportunities for each institution to apply their unique expertise to shared goals for research and impact.”

Building a solid foundation

As Moore explains, theoretical physics is kind of like the opening chapter of a story — you may not know what the ending will be, but it’s a crucial part of the overall narrative.

Or, think of it this way. To construct even a simple structure out of LEGO, you need to first understand how to put the little bricks together. The same is true for the kind of quantum research that results in innovative advances that change our world — you’re trying to get to a deeper understanding of quantum physics, how matter behaves in this world, how electrons talk to each other and react in different scenarios. You need to understand the rules before you can put together a solid structure, explains Maciejko.

“At least from my perspective, you cannot do applied science without fundamental science, because all of applied science at some point relies on fundamental science,” he says. “Like mechanics and Newton’s laws: it’s applied science now but it was fundamental science in the 1700s.”

“If we want to have new technologies or things that affect society, we have to also invest in fundamental science. There’s this pipeline from very fundamental science and mathematics to building devices and selling them. There’s a lot of examples of things people thought were just fundamental research that have become very practical,” explains Lindsay LeBlanc, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Canada Research Chair in Ultracold Gases for Quantum Simulation.

There are a few key areas in quantum theory. Research in superconductivity examines the properties of superconductors, special materials that conduct electricity perfectly. Quantum computing is another branch, with researchers inventing devices that store information in a quantum measurement called qubits rather than the standard bits found on a regular computer. Experts like Maciejko working in the field of topological materials study exotic new materials with distinct properties that could be the key to the next generation of devices. And then there’s particle physics, which studies “the fundamental building blocks of nature” by looking at matter in its most minute form, at the subatomic level.

“I would say quantum materials and quantum computing are two of the really big directions that we hope to push with (Quantum Horizons Alberta),” says Maciejko, although researchers involved in the network are bringing expertise in many different areas of quantum science.

Too complex to tackle alone

This is key because all quantum physicists, not just theorists, are trying to answer increasingly complex questions, and as a result, no one researcher has all the knowledge, explains LeBlanc. Collaboration is needed between physicists working in various branches of quantum.

“Having these different techniques and different backgrounds really helps people come up with new ideas, and that’s always what we’re going for — new approaches to solving problems that are really hard to solve,” she says.

The fact that Quantum Horizons Alberta focuses specifically on theoretical research sets it apart, according to Maciejko.

“Most certainly there will be ramifications for applications, but (the donors) really wanted to support fundamental science, research for the sake of discovering new things, and that was a big point.”

As Bird reveals, during the donors’ discussions, they learned that nearly all the funding was going into applications and commercialization of quantum science and they realized that focusing their funding dollars in another direction would allow them to make a major impact.

“There was a real gap in the funding for what we call foundational or theoretical quantum science,” says Bird. “All the academics we spoke to thought we can only go so far developing applications of what we already know. Eventually, we need to better understand the foundations of this area of science.”

“I would say Quantum Horizons Alberta is unique in the history of Canadian science,” says Maciejko. “We have the Perimeter Institute, but this is the first time something like this is happening out west, so it’s a big deal.”

While it can take decades or even centuries for advances in physics to move from the realm of thought to real-world applications, without the theoretical and fundamental components, we’re missing key pieces of the puzzle, Maciejko says.

“The fundamental science of today is the applied science of tomorrow. And if we cut the pipeline, then at some point, applied science is going to run out. We’re going to run out of ideas, of inspiration.”