NSF News

Quantum-scale sensors to yield human-scale benefits with new backing from NSF

18 research teams win funding from NSF to pursue new sensor technologies that can control quantum phenomena to precisely measure the previously unmeasurable.

A new breed of sensors may one day allow doctors to pinpoint infections inside individual cells, or geologists to find subterranean mineral deposits without lifting a shovel. Bringing such innovations to fruition is the goal of 18 research teams backed by a $29 million investment from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The aim is to harness the infinitesimal — and sometimes counterintuitive — quantum-scale properties of nature to create new opportunities at the human scale.

The 18 teams are comprised of researchers at universities across the U.S. who competed for and won funding from NSF's Quantum Sensing Challenges for Transformational Advances in Quantum Systems program. Each team will receive $1 million-$2 million over four years to conduct research that uses quantum phenomena, such as entanglement (when some properties of two or more separate particles are invisibly linked), to create sensors which can do things that would otherwise be impossible. Collectively, the teams will conduct a broad range of exploratory research activities, from measuring the height and density of mountains with an ultraprecise atomic clock to revealing the inner functions of living cells with quantum-entangled particles of light.

"For decades, scientific exploration at the quantum scale has yielded surprising discoveries about how our universe works — and tantalizing possibilities for quantum-enabled technologies," says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "We are now taking the next step in quantum research through these projects and others, which combine fundamental research with potential applications that can positively impact our lives, our economic prosperity and our competitiveness as a nation."

The new projects are part of NSF's broader strategy to realize the scientific and technological advances called for in 2018's "National Quantum Initiative Act" and, specifically, 2022's Bringing Quantum Sensors to Fruition report from the National Science and Technology Council.

The research teams include two located in states participating in NSF's Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) which provides funding to areas in the U.S. which have historically received less federal funding for research than others. In addition to research-intensive universities, the teams also include one from an emerging research institution. All the teams will conduct education and outreach activities along with their research and development work. Those activities include K-12 programs with students and teachers, partnerships with local community colleges and other mentorship programs aimed at inspiring students to pursue a career in quantum-related science and engineering.

The 18 teams and projects are:

Compact and robust quantum atomic sensors for timekeeping and inertial sensing (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The team will use photonic technologies and ultracold atoms to build portable accelerometers and atomic clocks that are rugged enough to be used in harsh environments like space, or in vehicles where GPS is unavailable.

Development of quantum sensors with helium-4 using 2D materials (University of Nevada, Reno)

The team will create a membrane with atomic-scale pores to make a weak link known as a Josephson junction between reservoirs of superfluid (a liquid with zero viscosity) to explore how the quantum properties of superfluidity can enable novel ultraprecise measurements of pressure, gravity, rotation and acceleration.

Distributed entangled quantum-enhanced interferometric imaging for telescopy and metrology (University of Oregon)

The team will build key components for a quantum-enhanced telescope that uses entangled photons to support very long baseline interferometry to improve imaging of astronomical objects and remote sensing.

Distributed entanglement quantum sensing of atmospheric and aerosol chemistries (University of California, Los Angeles)

The team will use distributed quantum sensing with entangled states of light and novel quantum spectroscopy techniques to go beyond the "standard quantum limit" for remote sensing of atmospheric constituents such as ammonia, nitrogen oxides and organic hydroperoxides.

Driving advances in magnetic materials and devices with quantum sensing of magnons (Case Western Reserve University)

The team will investigate the movement of magnetic domain walls (boundaries inside a magnetic material between regions where the magnetization is in a uniform direction) and the excitation of quasiparticles known as "magnons" in nanocrystalline soft magnetic alloys and other exotic materials which could improve computer memory technologies.

Entanglement-enhanced multiphoton fluorescence imaging of in vivo neural function (West Virginia University)

The team will use entangled photons (quantum states of light) to explore new ways to see within neuron cells of living organisms, potentially yielding greater resolution and efficiency in imaging biological processes in the nervous system.

Improving geodesy and gravitational sensing with quantum sensors of time (University of Colorado Boulder)

The team will use portable, hyper-accurate atomic clocks as a new way to determine elevation potentially anywhere on Earth by measuring "gravitational redshift" or tiny changes in the flow of time caused by differences in Earth's gravitational field at different altitudes.

Integrated squeezed-light magneto-optical sensor (University of California, Santa Barbara)

The team will create photonic chips (devices with solid state lasers, light guides and detectors) that use quantum states of light for ultrasensitive magnetometry (magnetic field sensing) for applications such as navigation, space exploration and biomedical research.

Nanodiamond quantum sensing for four-dimensional live-cell imaging (The University of Texas at Dallas)

The team will investigate new techniques for video imaging of processes within live cells, including the action of infection-fighting antibodies in cancer immunotherapies, by using high-purity nanoscale diamonds for certain types of spectroscopy and microscopy.

Nanoscale covariance magnetometry with diamond quantum sensors (Princeton University)

The team will measure quantum-scale properties of electric current and magnetic textures in materials such as graphene by using the quantum properties of microscopic defects in diamond crystals known as nitrogen-vacancy centers, with potential applications in materials science.

Noise engineering for enhanced quantum sensing (Colorado State University)

The team will develop a new technique to understand and characterize magnetic "noise" in materials to create the basis for new chemical sensors.

Novel quantum algorithms for optical atomic clocks (University of California, Santa Barbara).

The team will produce new quantum algorithms and methods to improve ensembles of atomic clocks to a point where they can be used to detect phenomena such as gravitational waves or dark matter.

Quantum atomic coherence-based charged particle sensor (William & Mary)

The team will create a new kind of particle detector that will detect ions (electrically charged particles) by observing the resultant effect on the quantum state of nearby atoms, thus revealing the proximity, charge and velocity of the ions.

Optically hyperpolarized quantum sensors in designer molecular assemblies (University of California, Berkeley)

The team will imbue particles with particular quantum spin properties into metal-organic frameworks (advanced materials that combine metal and organic molecules) to better detect chemical substances.

Quantum sensing platform for biomolecular analytics (University of Chicago)

The team will develop new microscope technology which can detect various conditions inside biological cells, such as temperature and oxygen concentrations, by using the quantum properties nitrogen-vacancy centers in diamond.

Quantum sensor networks for metrology, chemistry and astrophysics (Harvard University)

The team will explore how to use networks of distributed quantum sensors that harness coherence and entanglement for a variety of applications such as magnetic field sensing, remote sensing, imaging and detecting ultralow concentrations of specific molecules or proteins.

Quantum sensing with strongly nonclassical light based on third-order nonlinearities (University of Maryland)

The team will build photonic chip devices that generate and use quantum states of "squeezed" light for applications such as photodiode quantum efficiency calibration and molecular spectroscopy for biomedical research.

Sensing-intelligence on the move: Quantum-enhanced optical diagnosis of crop diseases (North Carolina State University)

The team will develop quantum-enhanced sensors for detecting crop diseases, such as downy mildew on cucumber plants, using field-deployable spectroscopy devices with entangled states of light.

For more information about the program, visit the Quantum Sensing Challenges for Transformational Advances in Quantum Systems program webpage.