Physics professor Mike Thewalt is leading a more than $7.6 million CFI-funded project to accelerate research towards a new, scalable quantum technology that could revolutionize computing.

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CFI Innovation Fund series: new discoveries in quantum computing

October 19, 2017
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New discoveries in quantum computing and quantum information have the potential to radically transform many aspects of current computing, information and sensing technologies.

Simon Fraser University Professor Mike Thewalt, an expert in quantum computing and information, is the lead for an SFU research project that has received over $7.6 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to accelerate research and collaboration into a new, scalable quantum technology capable of revolutionizing computing.

The project is called The Silicon Quantum Leap: Tools for Building a Universal Quantum Computer, and is one of five SFU-led research projects benefiting from the CFI Innovation Fund.

SFU News spoke with Thewalt about this innovative research project, built on collaboration and partnership.

Tell us about your academic background, research interests and what led you to where you are today in your career.

I received my BSc at McMaster in 1972, took a year off to see the world, and obtained a PhD in physics at UBC in 1977. I have always been interested in harnessing new technologies to discover things that have never been seen before, and my time at UBC established my main research interest in  semiconductor optical spectroscopy.Simply put, this is the study of how semiconductors like silicon, when doped with specific impurity atoms, emit or absorb light at very specific energies in the infrared region of the optical spectrum.

My PhD project at UBC involved photoluminescence studies of silicon. After studying a wide variety of other semiconductors in both bulk and heterostructures form, I returned to focusing on the optical properties of silicon in 2000, specifically studying isotopically enriched silicon-28. These studies led directly to the ideas that form the basis of our new CFI project, The Silicon Quantum Leap.

Why did you join SFU’s Department of Physics?

Impressed by SFU’s facilities and environment, I was thrilled to join the department in September 1980.  I have always found SFU to offer an extremely supportive environment in which to pursue research, and appreciated the department and Faculty of Science’s support in obtaining an NSERC Industrial Research Chair, which accelerated my research for its 10-year duration. I also appreciate the support of two NSERC Discovery Accelerator supplements.

I was extremely pleased to attract my collaborator, professor Stephanie Simmons, to SFU. Her ideas form the core of The Silicon Quantum Leap project, which is built upon her novel insights of how to use the properties of chalcogen defects in silicon as a scalable quantum information technology.  My group had discovered some of these properties in 2009, but it was Stephanie who saw how these properties could form the basis of a new quantum technology.

Can you tell us about your proposal’s research goals? 

Our goal is to demonstrate a scalable quantum technology based on optical coupling of qubits based on the electronic and/or nuclear spins of chalcogen impurities in silicon. Spin qubits in silicon have remarkably good properties compared to qubits in other systems, but what has been missing is a method to couple them together to perform logical operations, and a method to move the quantum information from one qubit to another. We believe that The Silicon Quantum Leap will demonstrate a new way to achieve these goals.

How is your research innovative and cutting-edge, and why did it attract CFI funding?

We are the world leaders in using the unique optical properties of silicon-28 for applications in quantum information, and the world leaders in understanding chalcogen donor qubits and their optical and spin properties. We were also very fortunate to have collaborators at UBC, professor Jeff Young and professor Lukas Chrostowski, who are world leaders in integrated silicon photonics devices. Their expertise will be essential in moving The Silicon Quantum Leap project forward as quickly as possible.

What are some of the key successes that you have achieved with your research and how are you using these successes to inform future research? Are there any challenges you’d like to share?

While we have made advances and discoveries in many different materials systems, it is our discovery and elucidation of the unique optical properties of enriched silicon-28 that has led directly to the present CFI project.

While I was fortunate to receive a good start in research, I worry about the new generation of researchers. The current funding environment in Canada, especially for “curiosity-driven” research, makes it very difficult for many beginning researchers to obtain an adequate initial investment.

What would you most like the public to know about your research project and goals?

This project has the potential for transformative results that could establish Canada at the forefront of the quantum revolution. It is important to remember that we only arrived at this point as a result of many years of strong funding (at least in the Canadian context) for “curiosity-driven” research.

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