Raising the profile of quantum research

Quantum research has long since ceased to be an exclusive domain of physics. The purpose of the new ETH Quantum Center is to ensure ETH Zurich’s various competences and activities in this area are networked even more closely and to raise their public profile.
Translating the findings of quantum research into specific applications calls for a variety of disciplines to work closely together. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Heidi Hostettler)

Quantum research is one of the most promising research areas being pursued today. The hope is that the principles of quantum mechanics will trigger pioneering breakthroughs in a variety of fields, leading to new applications. These fields include computing, sensor technology, communication and data security.

Quantum research is of great importance to ETH Zurich, where a significant number of professorships are now investigating quantum physics and quantum technologies. Although the Department of Physics is still home to a majority of quantum scientists, they are playing an increasingly prominent role in other departments as well.

Foray into new fields

The expectation of new applications is a major reason why quantum research is gaining a foothold in an increasing number of departments. Harnessing the abstract phenomena of quantum mechanics for specific applications calls for more than just theoretical and experimental physicists. They must also be joined by engineers to attend to the electronics, nanofabrication, new materials or process scalability, and by computer scientists to develop the required programming approaches, without which the new technologies would be useless.

“The engineers are tasked with translating knowledge into technology,” says Lukas Novotny, Professor of Photonics at the Department of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. “But at the same time, science is also being advanced by new technologies – now more than ever. This is why it’s essential that physics and the engineering sciences collaborate on quantum research.”

New degree programme and professorships

Already well set up to pursue quantum research, ETH Zurich plans to further expand its activities over the next few years. Last autumn, the university launched a new Quantum Engineering Master’s programme. And as part of the ETH+ initiative on quantum research, the recruitment process recently began for two new professorships – one for quantum computing at the Department of Computer Science, the other for experimental quantum technology in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI.

At the same time, ETH Zurich wants to bring the individual players in this field closer together. For this reason, and also as part of the ETH+ initiative, the university has founded the new ETH Quantum Center, which will bring together ETH’s different disciplines under one roof. In total, 28 professorships from 6 departments and from PSI have already joined the new center. “These numbers are themselves enough to illustrate the how diverse ETH Zurich’s competences in quantum research are,” says Andreas Wallraff, Professor of Solid State Physics. Novotny adds: “The ETH Quantum Center fosters collaboration among researchers from different departments and specialist areas. This enables us to leverage synergies in the development of quantum technologies.”

But the physicists and electrical engineers are not the only ones expecting great things from closer collaboration: the computer scientists also have high hopes. “Quantum information processing is still in its infancy,” explains Kenny Paterson, Professor of Applied Cryptography. “It has the potential to revolutionise computer science, but the only way to realise this fully is through an interdisciplinary approach.” Especially in his discipline of cryptography, Paterson is hoping that working with physicists will lead to some stimulating insights.

A distinct public presence

The center’s initiators are particularly focused on the medium term: with the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research for Quantum Science and Technology (NCCR QSIT) closing at the end of 2022, the new ETH Quantum Center is now set to take over some of its functions. A top priority is to forge a public presence: “Over the past 20 years, a great many outstanding quantum scientists have come together in various departments at ETH Zurich. In contrast to other universities, their collective presence at ETH has until now been rather understated,” Wallraff says. “If we want to be seen as a major player in this field by national and international research authorities, industry and mainstream media, we need a distinct and recognisable joint presence.”

A specific example of this is positioning ETH Zurich to be even more successful in securing European funding to pursue quantum technology. And when it comes to future collaborative projects with industry or third-​party fundraising, ETH will benefit from being able to present the full breadth of its expertise under the umbrella of the new Quantum Center. “ETH already offers first-​rate quantum research and will position itself globally as an even more powerful driving force in future,” Wallraff says. “We want to work together with the new center to achieve this goal.”