Courtesy of Cornell Chronicle

April 18, 2022

$10 Million Donation Aids the Exploration of Quantum Physics

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After receiving a $10 million donation from David Meehl ’72, Cornell is looking to make big strides in the field of quantum physics by increasing their resources on campus including faculty and laboratory equipment in efforts to become the leading university in this research area.

In the past, Cornell’s quantum physics research has largely focused on advancing some of the fundamental challenges of solid-state quantum technologies.

Meehl, however, made the donation because he says that the world needs more funds going into STEM programs. 

“We do not need more economists, but we do need more doctors, more nurses and more engineers,” Meehl said.  

Lynden Archer, dean of the College of Engineering, is also confident that this gift provides a push for early efforts to define the direction of quantum physics by funding the physics and engineering departments.

“The students that are educated in these domains end up becoming the leaders [of the fields] and this donation creates excitement among graduate students who will be able to use the infrastructure provided by the gift,” Archer said.

The ultimate goal of the donation is to develop quantum computers for Cornell. 

“Quantum computers offer secure information transfer as well as rapid solutions of complicated computational problems,” Archer said. These problems include modeling the behavior of a singular atom. 

Unlike regular computers that use binary code of zeros for ‘OFF’ and ones for ‘ON’ as switchable circuits, quantum computers are made to code using physical systems. 

The unit of quantum computers is qubits, or quantum bits, which allow a computer to have the ‘ON’ and ‘OFF’ state at the same time, which allows the computer to make many more combinations of numbers to research beyond what a supercomputer is capable of.

“The secret behind any quantum device are the materials that constitute that voice,” Archer said. Materials such as electronic chips and superconductors are what the donation will be put towards primarily for Cornell.

The gift will be dedicated to building the large equipment fund that will be used to generate quantum computers. There will be two different equipment funds — one for science and one for engineering. The remaining money will be used to hire experts to operate these complex instruments.

This equipment requires specific measures to function, which makes it difficult to operate. 

Performing research at a scale as small as the size of an atom and at precise temperatures colder than outer space, which are below -273ºC, makes conducting experiments with quantum computers much more challenging.

Quantum phenomenon occurs on subatomic scales that are sensitive to thermal variations. 

For an experiment to be accurate, there must be dilution refrigerators that allow to perform measurements at extremely low pressures in noise free environments. 

Having such measures allows a more precise environment to study the phenomena of atoms in a state of no disorder and no motion. In November, Meehl gifted Cornell with a dilution refrigerator which is required to do research in this area because it cools atoms to their motionless state.

Archer said he was excited by the fact that this is a growing research area that involves such cutting edge materials. 

“Funding quantum is going to allow us to be part of something really unique and growing,” Archer said. 

Other Cornell faculty members are also driven to conduct research in realm quantum physics. 

Prof. Euna Kim, physics, researches quantum condensed matter theory, which studies the phenomena of electrons. With quantum computers, Kim will be able to control atoms to mimic the behavior of the electrons of the atom.

According to Kim, Cornell has always been a leader and early adopter in nanoscience and physics, but is now slowly gravitating toward engineering. Kim says she is confident that quantum science and technology is the next wave.

“These donations are going to allow Cornell to enable strong ideas [and] strong talent to come together, [to] do something that is truly remarkable,” Kim said.

Meehl’s donation will allow physics and engineering students at Cornell to collaborate and generate research that has not been a possibility in the past due to the generation of quantum computers on campus.

“Frankly, this is just the beginning,” Archer said. “This is a field that we expect as a college to become a leader in relatively quickly, and so we’ll continue to invest in this domain.”