New $25M network set to expand horizons for fundamental quantum research in Alberta

Donor-supported provincewide network will harness leading expertise across three universities to create a globally recognized research hub.


Quantum researchers from three Alberta universities are joining forces thanks to a new donor-funded network that allows them to collaborate and further our understanding of theoretical quantum science. (Image: Supplied)

A new $25-million, Alberta-wide initiative is aiming to expand our foundational knowledge of quantum science and pursue transformational research into the potentials of quantum physics.

Initiated by a group of visionary donors, Quantum Horizons Alberta (QHA) will grow the considerable capacity in quantum research across the province through a partnership with the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge.

QHA will bring together world-class scientists to deepen our understanding and unlock the mysteries of quantum, where the rules of classical physics do not apply. Quantum science studies the properties and behaviours of the very small or very cold building blocks of the universe, exploring the world beyond what we perceive around us. From creating Bose-Einstein condensates at the lowest temperatures in the universe, to understanding the mysteries of what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” with entangled particles, quantum is the field of novel discovery.

And though there are practical applications today — such as medical imaging, lasers, electron microscopes and new approaches to computing power and cybersecurity — dedicated foundational science is required to extend the horizons of knowledge in the quantum realm and open untold and unpredictable possibilities.

Based in Alberta, recognized globally

Richard Bird, one of four donors behind the network along with Joanne Cuthbertson, Patrick Daniel and Guy Turcotte, says they are “very excited to be partnering with Alberta’s major research universities to bring this new pan-Alberta initiative into existence and continue on the path of having a globally recognized hub of excellence for foundational quantum research based here in Alberta.”

He says “quantum science is an increasingly critical area of study around the world, and we have the opportunity to establish our province as a key source of research and discoveries in a field which promises to be transformational to the human condition.”

Cuthbertson’s interest in supporting quantum research is rooted in her desire to care for her community — a community in which she too sees plenty of potential.

“We have a milieu of magical ingredients in Alberta that make us a special place for investment and doing very big things,” says Cuthbertson. “Alberta has the talent and experience, and the right mindset. We have eyes for opportunities. We have experience with starting something small and growing it into something large. We have a lot of respect for the relationship between making an investment and reaping a reward. And, very notably, we have a tolerance for risk-taking.”

This is why she and her fellow donors intentionally prioritized a partnership model for QHA and expect that the group will continue to expand as supporters from across Canada join the initiative.

“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,” says Bird. “We wanted to make sure we have the benefit of the bench strength that already exists in all three universities.”

“We may not know where the discoveries are going to come from,” says Turcotte. “But we do know it's going to be exciting when we discover new solutions to the world’s unanswered curiosities.”

Laying the groundwork for discovery

“What's making these particular donations valuable is that they’re laying the groundwork for a voyage of discovery,” says Roger Moore, professor and chair of the U of A’s Department of Physics. “Partnership encourages sharing, an interchange of ideas, and that can hugely advance science at a far more rapid pace than someone sitting in their office by themselves, trying to solve everything. In a network, you get a free flow of ideas and conversations between diverse people with diverse perspectives. That’s incredibly important for quantum physics. It really helps advance the field.”

“I always loved research for the sake of research,” says Daniel. “Research to expand human knowledge, rather than research that’s specifically aimed at a commercial outcome.

“We seldom look out at the stars and really wonder what is going on out there, or consider the particles that make up everything around us. That’s what quantum physics research is all about. That’s what QHA will take to a new level in Alberta.”

The initial annual operating budget for QHA will be $5 million spread across the three nodes for a minimum of five years, supported by the donors, the universities and other partners.

"These community leaders have stepped forward to invest in foundational quantum discovery because they understand how critical new knowledge is to Alberta’s future. Quantum Horizons Alberta activates our provincial research ecosystem, leveraging the talent across our universities, and enabling us to elevate and expand our capabilities,” says Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. “Creating new knowledge to move society forward is fundamental to the purpose of great research universities.”

“Quantum Horizons Alberta’s research funding will enable us to recruit more high-calibre research scientists and graduate students in this field,” says Bill Flanagan, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta. “We have a strong history of discovery and research excellence in Alberta. We can build on this history thanks to the visionary philanthropists involved in QHA. Advancing a collaborative quantum research network increases the potential for more made-in-Alberta discoveries that will benefit people worldwide.”

“Quantum research is transforming our world by offering solutions to difficult problems much faster and better, opening up new opportunities in areas like security, finance, drug development, and studying climate change,” says Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Lethbridge. “Supporting fundamental research today is absolutely vital to achieve major scientific breakthroughs tomorrow.”

Alberta is already home to quantum research and innovation excellence, and, in partnership with industry, a quantum innovation hub dedicated to growing the quantum tech sector in the province.

Funding through Quantum Horizons Alberta is intended to build quantum science capacity in Alberta by supporting existing expertise and attracting new talent, with the goal to recruit a minimum of eight new quantum research professors to Alberta over the next two years along with funding for many postdoctoral scholars and graduate students.

“Quantum research is very bold,” says Turcotte. “And this bold institution is something Canadians will be proud of.”