You don’t need a degree in quantum engineering to work in a cutting-edge quantum lab in Colorado, which was just named a U.S. Tech Hub for quantum technology. Just ask Kelly Schilling, a philosophy major with a minor in music who joined Maybell Quantum as a technician about a year ago.
She does soldering, machining, wiring and other tasks learned at her last gig working for a music synthesizer manufacturer. Her new job fits her because, well, it’s not rocket science, and she can work during the day, practice with her band in the evenings and skip work for three weeks at a time if her music career calls.
“A lot of my job searching is so I can tour,” said Schilling, a member of progressive metal bands Dreadnought and BleakHeart. “It’s funny though. My drummer is an engineer. We’re starting to write a new album and he … brought up the idea of quantum science in terms of when it comes to intention. It’s so hard to put this stuff into words, but when you look at a quantum particle, just by observing it, it changes the function of it. That’s something he’s really fascinated with. So it just might play into some of the concepts we’re working with.”
Maybell is part of an industry with a long history in the Boulder-Denver region. Recently, it’s attracted entrepreneurs and qubit builders, aka the quantum computer makers. The Tech Hub designation could spur more public and private funding and help commercialize the technology and expand the workforce beyond researchers with Ph.D.s. On Tuesday, Boulder transplant Atom Computing became the first quantum computer maker in the world to reach the 1,000-qubit milestone, which is double IBM’s computer. Qubits are similar to computer data bits but can be used to calculate very complex problems more efficiently.
But ask anyone in the industry, they’ll probably say there’s already a hub here. Quantum traces its local roots to the 1950s when the National Institute of Standards and Technology picked Boulder for a research facility. NIST, which needed quantum measurements because they need to measure the most precise and sensitive things in the world, later partnered with the University of Colorado to create the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in 1962.
“A lot of the quantum discoveries, the fundamental discoveries that are distinguishing our region, have come from NIST and JILA. We’ve had scientists that have made key discoveries in the space, including four Nobel Prize winners,” said Massimo Ruzzene, CU’s vice chancellor for research and innovation. “Four of them in quantum science is significant because that’s half of the overall Nobel Prizes in quantum.”
(The quartet of CU Nobel laureates for physics are Carl Wieman and Eric Cornell in 2001, John “Jan” Hall in 2005, and David Wineland in 2012.)
CU is not the only local educational institution involved in quantum. Over in Golden, Colorado School of Mines offers advanced degrees in quantum engineering. Front Range Community College, with campuses in Westminster, Longmont and Fort Collins, is one of the few in the country with optics and photonics programs. Both were part of the push to get a Tech Hub in Colorado and are helping build that future workforce.
While quantum computing is still mostly used for research, the growing commercial ecosystem is what attracted Maybell. Corban Tillemann-Dick, its cofounder and CEO, picked Denver as its home base two years ago.
Corban Tillemann-Dick, CEO of Maybell Quantum, monitors the temperature of a dilution refrigerator that houses a quantum computer Oct. 19 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Quantum computers require a base temperature of 10 Millikelvin, equivalent to nearly minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, to operate.
“There was a pipeline that allowed these fundamental breakthroughs in quantum to escape the lab,” Tillemann-Dick said. He pointed to a trio of quantum computer manufacturers, such as Atom Computing. And companies like Maybell, Vescent Photonics, Meadowlark Optics and Octave Photonics are “building the kind of picks and shovels for the quantum gold rush.”
He’s not a quantum engineer, either. He studied mechanical engineering in college and later became a partner at Boston Consulting Group, focusing on quantum. He was envious of clients who were “defining the next century” so he left to start Maybell, which offers the quantum computing industry a very cold place for their machines to do sensitive calculations.
As Schilling mentioned, even a glance at a quantum chip can produce the slightest bit of energy that can cause vibrations and disrupt calculations. She works steps away from a metal cabinet that makes whooshing sounds. Inside, a golden chandelier-like device cools the interior from room temperature to10 Millikelvin, or negative 457-degrees Fahrenheit. The whoosh? That’s the Stirling engine used to help cool it down.
Maybell is building quantum fridges and is expanding. It’ll be moving soon to a larger space in northwest Denver to be able to run “10 systems at a time, which should let us ship more than 50 a year going forward,” Tillemann-Dick said.
That means he’ll need more non-quantum engineers who can build the machines. A literal cool opportunity, Tillemann-Dick says, because how many people get to work “near the coldest place in the universe.”
What might quantum technology do?
The hope of quantum is to help humans find solutions to the most challenging problems on Earth that are taking today’s computers too long to solve. Climate change is a popular one. There’s interest in using the tech to curb agricultural methane or reducing the cost of hydrogen so it can become a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Quantum sensors could diagnose cancer, Alzheimer’s or dementia faster than current technology.
IBM, which has its own quantum computers, is working with Mercedes Benz on a more efficient car battery so all of its vehicles will be carbon neutral by 2039. ExxonMobil wants to find the most efficient transportation routes to ship liquified natural gas to customers before they run out of power. Both involve an incredible amount of information because of an unknown number of possibilities.
Quantum is for those extremely complex challenges that can’t be solved, at least not quickly, by today’s computers — which the quantum industry calls classical computers. A quantum computer is radically different because it doesn’t rely just on wires and the familiar data bits of ones and zeroes. But it uses states in between the ones and zeroes, too. That’s called superposition. By figuring out all of the probabilities exponentially faster, it can push the best answers to the top.
“It’s a probability,” Tillemann-Dick said. “So with a classical computer, if you go from one bit to 20 bits, you’ve gone from one bit of computing power to 20 bits of computing power. But with a quantum computer, you go from one qubit to 20 qubits, and you’ve gone from one qubit of computing power to over a million cubits and computing power. And that continues as the numbers (of qubits) go up. And that’s what makes things that are impossible for classical computers, trivial for quantum computers, at least certain types of problems.”
Another example? Molecular modeling. “If you were to model penicillin with a classical computer, you would need more transistors than there are atoms in the observable universe to just describe what penicillin is,” he said. “With a quantum computer, you only need 286 qubits.”
But quantum computing isn’t expected to replace classical computers altogether. Calculating one plus one on a quantum computer is more difficult than you’d think, said Justin Ging, chief product officer at Atom Computing. They have different purposes. They also don’t necessarily provide answers instantly.
“Quantum computers will open up the possibility to find the best answer in a reasonable amount of time that’s useful,” Ging said. “But there are certain problems where if it takes a year or a billion years on a classical computer to do, now it can do it within a reasonable amount of time whether that’s days or weeks. That’s still useful for certain problems.”
Back in Colorado…
Berkeley, California-based Atom Computing, which opened a development facility in Boulder last year, is one of at least three quantum hardware builders in the area. The others are Infleqtion, which was started by a CU professor, and Broomfield’s Quantinuum, previously called Honeywell Quantum Solutions.
They’re all in a race, along with IBM, to build a computer with more qubits. Atom’s secret sauce is knowing how to scale its tech by 10-times, Ging said. On Tuesday, Atom took the global lead after announcing it went from 100 qubits to 1,180 qubits, which will be available next year. IBM’s 433-qubit processor is currently the largest commercially available today.
Still, Ging said, quantum computers are just used for research today.
“They don’t actually do any of these value creation things yet,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of applications that are targeted. … The trick is how do you get to that next era of where they are big enough and able to do these problems? Who’s going to get there first? Because that’s where the money is and when you have return on investment. When you can go to a company and say, ‘I can save you a billion dollars.’ OK, that’s interesting. Everyone’s trying to get their quantum computers to be at that level, but nobody’s quite there yet.”
According to a Boston Consulting Group analysis, by 2035 when quantum computing is mature, the technology is projected to create $450 billion to $850 billion in net income for the companies with applications, tools or services that rely on the technology.
To capture a big chunk of that is something that officials including U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper are excited to support. An entrepreneur himself, Hickenlooper said he thinks the startup momentum along with a long history of quantum was what helped Colorado gain the Tech Hub designation, a federal effort to invest in innovation in different parts of the country to keep America competitive with China and other countries. He believes the region could become a Silicon Valley of quantum computing.
“Just as Boston was similarly successful in technology, as was Palo Alto and San Francisco in the ’80s, there were a couple of big announcements in the ’90s that put a lot of focus on California and they became the center of technology innovation all through the very late-’90s to the present day,” he said. “I think these designations … have the potential to make Colorado 20 years from now the center of quantum.”
In the past year, Atom Computing has shifted its critical mass to Boulder in order to focus on building the commercial systems. The plan is to maintain its Berkeley office but this helps them get access to more talent. It employs about 70 people.
“As we grow our team, it’s going to expand beyond physicists, with more software folks, a little bit more electronics and more on the business side,” Ging said. “We don’t need welders like (Maybell), but what we have are lab technicians who are bachelor’s degree level and are able to build out some of the optics assembly. There are programs like at Front Range Community College where they have optics technicians. We think that will be valuable to us as we move forward. And then once these systems have been initially built, there’s the operational phase of keeping them on for customers, maintenance and things like that. You won’t need to be a Ph.D. to do that type of work.”