Arizona engineer receives $ 5 million to create Quantum-based navigation tools

By Emily Dieckman, College of Engineering


Zheshen Zhang
Emily dieckman

Zheshen Zhang, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Arizona, leads a $ 5 million quantum technology project to advance navigation for autonomous vehicles and spacecraft, as well as the measurement of materials from another world such as dark matter and gravitational waves.

The National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator Program, which accelerates multidisciplinary efforts to solve real-world problems, funds the Quantum Sensors Project.

In September 2020, 29 American teams received phase I funding to develop solutions in quantum technology or in data sharing and modeling based on artificial intelligence. Ten prototypes moved into Phase II, each receiving $ 5 million, including two projects led by researchers at the Arizona State University – Zhang’s project and one by an assistant professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences Laura Condon.

“Quantum technology and AI innovation is a priority for the National Science Foundation,” said Douglas Maughan, NSF Convergence Accelerator program manager. “Today’s scientific priorities and national societal challenges cannot be solved by a single discipline. Instead, the fusion of new ideas, techniques and approaches, along with the Convergence Accelerator innovation agenda, allows teams to accelerate their application research. We are delighted to welcome Quantum Sensors into Phase II and help them apply the core principles of our program to ensure their solution has a positive impact on society as a whole. “

Upgrading gyroscopes and accelerometers

The objects we interact with in our daily lives adhere to classical laws of physics, such as gravity and thermodynamics. Quantum physics, however, has different rules, and objects in quantum states can exhibit strange but useful properties. For example, when two particles are linked by quantum entanglement, whatever happens to one particle affects the other, regardless of their distance. This means that the probes at two locations can share information, allowing more precise measurements. Or, while “classical” light emits photons at random intervals, scientists can induce a quantum state called “compressed” light to make the emission of photons more regular and reduce the uncertainty – or “noise” – in it. measures.

The Quantum Sensors project will take advantage of quantum states to create ultra-sensitive gyroscopes, accelerometers and other sensors. Gyroscopes are used in the navigation of airplanes and other vehicles to maintain balance during orientation changes. In tandem, accelerometers measure vibrations or the acceleration of movement. These navigation gyroscopes and accelerometers are light-based and can be extremely accurate, but they are bulky and expensive.

Many electronic devices, including cell phones, are equipped with tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers that allow features such as automatic screen rotation and directional pointers for GPS applications. At this scale, gyroscopes are made up of micromechanical parts, rather than lasers or other light sources, making them much less precise. Zhang and his team aim to develop chip-scale light-based gyroscopes and accelerometers to surpass current mechanical methods. However, detection of light at this scale is limited by the laws of quantum physics, presenting a fundamental performance limitation for such optical gyroscopes and accelerometers.

Rather than fighting these quantum limitations with classical resources, Zhang and his team fight fire with fire, so to speak, using quantum resources. For example, the stability of compressed light can counterbalance the uncertainty of quantum fluctuations, which are temporary changes in variables such as position and momentum.

“The fundamental quantum limit is induced by quantum fluctuations, but this limit can be overcome by using a quantum state of light, such as entangled photons or compressed light, for the laser itself,” said Zhang, director from the university’s Quantum Information and Materials Group. “With this method, we can come up with much better measurements.”

Gain an advantage on Earth and beyond

The advantages of extremely precise measurements are numerous. If a self-driving car could determine its exact position and speed using a compact and improved on-board gyroscope and accelerometer, it wouldn’t need to rely on GPS to navigate. An autonomous navigation system would protect the car from hackers and provide more stability. The same goes for the navigation of spacecraft and ground vehicles sent to other planets.

“In space and terrestrial technologies, there are a lot of fluctuations. In an urban environment, you might lose the GPS signal while going through a tunnel, ”said Zhang. “This method might capture information not provided by a GPS. GPS tells you where you are, but it does not tell you your altitude, the direction your vehicle is driving, or the angle of the road. With all of this information, passenger safety would be ensured. “

Zhang collaborates with partners from General Dynamics Mission Systems, Honeywell, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Purdue University, Texas A&M University, UCLA and Morgan State University.

“We are delighted to be working with the University of Arizona on this NSF Convergence Accelerator project,” said Jianfeng Wu, Honeywell representative and co-principal investigator of the project. “The built-in entangled light sources can reduce background noise and enable the navigation performance of smart gyroscopes. The success of this program will dramatically disrupt the current gyroscope landscape in many ways.

Because precise navigation would directly affect 700 million people worldwide, researchers estimate that quantum sensors could create a market of $ 2.5 billion by 2035. They also expect precision and The stability afforded by technology gives researchers a way to measure previously unmeasurable forces, such as gravitational waves and dark matter.

“As a leading international research university bringing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to life, we are deeply committed to advancing amazing new information technologies such as quantum networks for the benefit of humanity,” said the president of the University of Arizona. Robert C. Robbins. “The University of Arizona is an internationally recognized leader in this field, and I look forward to seeing how Dr. Zhang’s Quantum Sensors project takes us forward to meet real-world challenges with quantum technology.

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