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Montana Quantum Testbed Aims to Bring Together Industry and Academia

Q&A with Orca and Montana State University

Berenice Baker, Editor, Enter Quantum

June 10, 2024

4 Min Read
An Orca Computing PT-1 system
Orca Computing

Earlier this week, Montana State University (MSU) announced that it had selected Orca Computing to supply and install two of its PT-1 quantum photonic quantum systems on site.

The systems are slated to be used for research into distributed quantum computing and critical quantum capabilities, but they will also play a wider role as part of a photonics testbed.

In this Q&A, Orca co-founder and CEO Richard Murray and MSU dean of college of letters and science Yves Idzerda explain what the deal means for Montana’s wider photonics community, the quantum skills pipeline and the role of photonics in quantum scaling.

What is the background to this Air Force-funded acquisition?

Yves Idzerda: Montana State University is located in Bozeman, Gallatin County, and about 10% of the people who live there work in the optics field, it's one of our success stories. Building on that, photonic computers are a direction that we want to hit.

The Air Force funding came about in two ways. We first got into the quantum materials area because we were one of the two National Science Foundation-funded quantum foundries where we're a user facility for two-dimensional materials that are one [atomic] layer thick.

We found that as we develop these devices, we have users coming in that need not just the product but also the resources to test them. We're creating a testbed facility that will allow people to work at very low millikelvin temperatures so that they can see if their devices function the way they predicted.

Related:Air Force Funds 2 Quantum Computers for Montana State University

We're trying to outfit this testbed facility with four different quantum computers. They're not going to be massive 100,000 qubit systems, but they're the kinds that will be used in sensors and other defense applications of interest to the Air Force.

What is Orca hoping to gain from this project?

Richard Murray: It's exciting to be working with a testbed, there is this exploration and comparison element of working with different systems. We have worked with different photonics entities around Montana. In some ways, this is a continuation of that existing work and the links with the Air Force as well, who are really intelligent, active users of photonic quantum systems.

When can we expect to see these systems deployed and who will use them?

Richard Murray: We don’t wait around; we intend to deploy these two systems before the end of the year.

Yves Idzerda: We’re constructing a purpose-built building that’s outside the campus so that it's not an academic setting, it's more of an industrial setting. We plan to have spaces for smaller industry users who are interested in quantum materials but need some academic support.

Related:Lawmakers Call for DOD Quantum Center of Excellence

We’re using the quantum computers as part of a testbed with an extremely low-temperature millikelvin capability. If companies get a few million dollars of venture capital and they spend it all on equipment, they can't spend it on personnel. So we’re creating a place where they can reliably test their systems. That way, we hope to support the infrastructure that facilitates economic development in the region.

How will this support the quantum skills pipeline?

Yves Idzerda: We think it's extremely important to demystify quantum. We want people to feel like quantum materials and quantum computers are like the internet. It’s very useful, everyone uses it, they don't know how it works, but at the same time, they’re very comfortable with it.

We make it accessible to people who would normally be like, “I don't want to get into that because it's so hard, it must be only for really smart people.” We're focusing on two-year and four-year degrees because we need to have technicians who can work in these environments, not just people who can work the big problem.

We learned that with the photonics industry. As it matured, more and more of the demand was for these shorter degrees.

What is the role of photonics in scaling quantum computing?

Richard Murray: I don't think there is any quantum platform on the planet that doesn't plan to use photonics and networking to scale up. Everyone's talking about rack-mounted systems. You need a number of them and the system size becomes several feet across. There is only one way of transmitting quantum information from one point to a few feet away and that is photonics. Photonics is this critical ingredient for scaling up any quantum platform, including our own.

About the Author(s)

Berenice Baker

Editor, Enter Quantum

Berenice is the editor of Enter Quantum, the companion website and exclusive content outlet for The Quantum Computing Summit. Enter Quantum informs quantum computing decision-makers and solutions creators with timely information, business applications and best practice to enable them to adopt the most effective quantum computing solution for their businesses. Berenice has a background in IT and 16 years’ experience as a technology journalist.

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