Chris Anderson combining materials science, physics and electrical engineering to advance quantum technologies

Newswise — Chris Anderson is the newest addition to the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL) faculty, and he is ready to make a quantum leap into the world of materials science. He joined the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in January 2024 in the department of materials science & engineering and is also an affiliate of the department of physics, the department of electrical & computer engineering and the Holonyak Micro & Nano Technology Laboratory (HMNTL), and a member of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST).Anderson’s research at UIUC will combine materials science, applied physics and electrical engineering to manipulate and generate photons with solid-state materials for scaling quantum computers, boosting quantum sensing and distributing entanglement over long distances for quantum communications.Choose your own adventureAlthough initially interested in architecture, Anderson started out studying molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He says that he found out what he really liked about studying biology was actually understanding how it worked through chemistry. So, he switched to being a chemistry major. And then what he really liked about chemistry was physical chemistry and how chemistry worked through physics. Switching to physics, again, he liked fundamental questions about how physics worked. That led him to get a minor in the philosophy of science, “at which point I realized I had gone too far and decided to stick with physics,” he laughs. “The interesting thing about physics that I really liked is how the fundamentals can be connected to technology that impacts everyday life. We can use sci-fi physics but do something practical, and that put me on the track to where I am today.”He graduated from Michigan with degrees in both physics and chemistry and took a year to do research before starting graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he studied physics but was in the recently founded Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. “I was a physics grad student but in this new interdisciplinary engineering school that had just started,” Anderson says. “That’s where I caught the interdisciplinary and applied sciences bug.”Following his time at UChicago, Anderson pursued postdoctoral research at Stanford University. He was still doing quantum research, but now in a traditional electrical engineering department. “So, I have done quantum research in a physics department, a molecular engineering department, an electrical engineering department and now a materials science department,” he says.How then would Anderson describe himself: Physicist? Electrical engineer? Materials scientist? He explains, “I have never taken a materials science class, so being here is an adventure for me. All my degrees have been in physics, my training is as a physicist, my postdoctoral training as an electrical engineer. But the problems I care about are how materials can be improved to enable quantum technology. So, I call myself a quantum engineer. At Illinois, there’s not a department for that. But that is the fun part, it is a cross disciplinary concept that intersects all these different departments which are all strong at Illinois. For me, it really is choose your own adventure, where I can interact, collaborate and work across these boundaries.”Manipulating lightResearch in the Anderson group is driven by the ultimate goal of building the quantum internet—a new internet that will change how we compute and communicate. Quantum technologies do exist in today’s world, but they are isolated, small and rather useless, according to Anderson. Functionality is gained by connecting things together, like classical computers are connected to get the internet we all use today. Anderson aims to explore how light can be used to connect quantum devices together, giving them improved performance and functionality.Chris Anderson’s research featured on the cover of Physics Today (Volume 76, Issue 8)“I get really excited about manipulating light. It is super critical to a lot of ‘classical’ technologies around us, which are in some part enabled by our ability to turn light on and off and modulate it,” he explains. “The core problem is how do we manipulate light with materials? We want light to encode quantum information to be sent over long distances.” Quantum states are inherently fragile and consist of single particles, therefore this manipulation needs to be very good to perform those tasks. “My research focuses on discovering, optimizing, finding and building materials and devices that can manipulate light to connect quantum things together—to build a quantum internet,” Anderson says.Recently, physics researchers from The Grainger College of Engineering introduced the world’s first publicly available quantum network. In this demonstration, entangled photons from Loomis Laboratory on campus were sent via fiber optic cable to The Urbana Free Library across town. While impressive, Anderson explains that there are two main problems related to quantum networks.The first is that the photons going through the fiber optic sometimes get lost, scattered or absorbed during transit. In regular networks, amplifiers are used to boost the signal along the way. Unfortunately, this is not possible in quantum mechanics. According to the “no-cloning theorem,” quantum particles cannot be amplified without disturbing them—the act of measuring the particles disrupts them. This greatly inhibits the ability to send quantum particles over long distances. One way to correct this issue is to build quantum repeaters, stations along a quantum network that mitigate loss. These repeaters still obey the laws of quantum physics but allows for the distribution of quantum information over longer distances.The second issue is that once the photons are sent across the network, they don’t really do anything interesting since the networks are not yet connected to computers. Taking single photons and converting them into signals a computer can interface with is a problem that has not yet been solved. Classical computers are connected to the internet and use a modem to convert transmitted signals into signals a device can read. Quantum computers therefore need quantum modems to connect to the quantum networks currently being built. “I basically build quantum modems and quantum repeaters using new materials,” Anderson says. “It is this interface between the materials that can make these applications happen and the underlying physics that I get excited about.” “It is all hands on deck for quantum. We need people at the Ph.D. level, the bachelor’s level, the master’s level. We need professors and venture capital and businesses. We need materials scientists, engineers, chemists, non-scientists, policymakers—all are welcome. We need everyone’s help to make this go.”Chris Anderson All hands on deckAs Anderson embarks on starting his own research group and building his lab, he is looking to fill that lab with students of all kinds. “We are a small, vibrant and growing team,” Anderson says. “Building teams of creative people tackling hard problems is one of the reasons I wanted to be a faculty member. And building a team of thoughtful and diverse scientists is my priority.”Quantum is a rapidly growing field of research that is drawing attention from all levels. In the state of Illinois, quantum research is even one of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s top priorities. Further, quantum technology is a moon-shot goal of Grainger Engineering, where researchers are driving advancements in quantum research and training a quantum-ready workforce. Anderson says, “We are in a time where there is a lot of buy in and excitement at all levels. But we need everyone. It is all hands on deck for quantum. We need people at the Ph.D. level, the bachelor’s level, the master’s level. We need professors and venture capital and businesses. We need materials scientists, engineers, chemists, non-scientists, policymakers—all are welcome. We need everyone’s help to make this go.”To any student interested in quantum, Anderson encourages them not to discount themselves even if they have not been formally trained in the field. “Just because you don’t know anything about it doesn’t mean we don’t want you in it,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to do something different. Find out what excites you and as long as you have drive and interest, you can learn anything.”Reflecting on his own time in graduate school, Anderson acknowledges that his timeline may have been a little long because he gets really excited about many different things. “It is really easy and fun to explore. But on the flip side of that, my career has been filled with many ideas that never worked. The last chapter in my thesis is actually called the ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ dedicated to all the projects that never came to fruition. But I think people should talk more about the scientific failures they have had. One of the important things graduate school teaches you is how to deal with frustration and failure, but also to explore and be adaptable.”Enabling new magicAnderson has a constant sense of wonder about the things we take for granted such as smartphones. He says, “It is just exceptional science and engineering. And at one point, not too long ago, this would be considered magic. I want to be someone who can enable new magic for humans to use: to communicate with each other, to study the world, to enable information processing technology. This inspires me to think about new things that we can build and enable that can better society, even if they seem far off.”As a new faculty member, this is a unique point in Anderson’s career. So far, he loves working at Illinois with its collaborative, collegial environment. He says, “I feel very supported here. There have been many spontaneous opportunities that have resulted from fellow faculty members wanting to include me as the new person.”Although he is just starting out, Anderson is also looking to the future and what that might look like for his research. Illinois is a leader in quantum and has many young quantum faculty. Anderson would like be a leader in the field and on campus, playing a strong role in building on the strength that is already here.Beyond that, he says, “The thing I really want to see in 5-10 years is a large group of graduate students who respect each other, are creative and have fun in the lab. I would like to see a community—a science family—that graduates and spreads out across industry and academia. Success for me would look like producing thoughtful scientists who go out and make an impact on the world.”Science BrainOutside of the lab, you might find Anderson at an Illini football game (he is “completely obsessed” with college football), reading a sci-fi or fantasy book (he really loves The Three-Body Problem series by Liu Cixin), eating good food (he is a self-described foodie), or you might not find him at all. “Every summer I go to a log cabin in the woods,” Anderson says. “It is my only chance to unplug from Wi-Fi. I am definitely a workaholic. My wife calls it ‘science brain,’ and sometimes I can’t turn it off. So, I try to completely remove myself from the situation and go to the cabin.” A couple of weeks away and he is refreshed and ready to get back to work! 

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