Feb. 15, 2024

UCalgary celebrates 25 years of quantum physics

From foundational research to developing novel technologies, quantum physics at UCalgary has been growing and thriving for the past quarter of a century
Three people wearing goggles work on a quantum machine
UCalgary's Quantum Cloud Lab, led by Daniel Oblak, pioneers tech for linking distant quantum devices. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When we think of the word quantum, we often think of the future.

With cutting-edge initiatives like Quantum City, Calgary's new quantum innovation hub, and the Canadian government championing the field through the National Quantum Strategy, quantum technologies promise to become transformational in industries from energy development to finance to agriculture.

It’s easy to look forward when we think of the word quantum, and we should be. According to the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Quantum Science and Technology Strategy, in less than 20 years, the quantum sector’s projected revenues are expected to match what the entire aerospace sector contributes to the national economy today.

Yet, to move forward with clarity and vision, we must remember our foundation. The University of Calgary has a rich history in quantum physics. From researching the nature of antimatter to developing nanotechnologies that exploit quantum physics, it’s this very history that has brought us to where we are today: on the path to becoming a leader in the quantum revolution.

The university first became involved in the world of quantum through Dr. Richard Cleve, PhD, who was hired in the Department of Computer Science in 1990 and made seminal contributions to quantum information and quantum computing during his time at the university.

A man in a suit and glasses smiles at the camera

Rob Thompson in 2023.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Dr. Robert Thompson, PhD, a professor of physics and associate vice-president (research), was the university’s official quantum hire, 25 years ago.

“I came here to do my job interview on June 1, 1998. When I left Houston, it was 104 degrees Fahrenheit and when I arrived in Calgary there was frost on the ground. I loved it,” says Thompson.

Thompson grew up in British Columbia. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia and his graduate studies at the University of Toronto, where he first got into quantum research, then limited to atomic, molecular and optical physics (AMO). After this, Thompson took a staff position at Max-Planck-Institute for Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany, and then completed a one-year postdoctoral position at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Why does Thompson study quantum physics? The answer is simple. He wants to decode the mystery.

“Quantum physics has this level of fascination because it’s relatively young, it was discovered 115 years ago, and so the foundations of quantum are actually very close to the work we do in the lab. Those foundational principles we know are incomplete. We’ve solved some of the mysteries since I started in 1998, but there are pieces missing. It’s that pursuit of understanding that fascinates me.” 

Things were different at UCalgary in 1998. Because quantum physics research was in its infancy, Thompson, who at the time was studying ion trap physics, found himself working alone — both physically and in his field.

A young Rob Thompson sits in a room full of papers

Rob in his office when he first started at the university in 1998.

The Thompson family

“It was interesting because the AMO group consisted solely of me,” he says. “Plus, almost all of the other faculty members had their offices on the third, fifth or sixth floors, and there I was on the ground floor.” 

The ground floor: a perfect metaphor for how Thompson — and soon other quantum researchers — built the quantum physics world up from here at UCalgary.

 In 1999, Thompson was joined by Dr. Nasser Moazzen-Ahmadi, PhD, in the AMO physics group. Both Thompson and Moazzen-Ahmadi asked the university for the same things: lab space, technical support and more than two faculty members. In 2002, Dr. David Feder, PhD, a theoretical physicist, joined the faculty.

“At that point, quantum technology was really starting to grow. That was what brought Barry Sanders to town in 2003. He was another theorist, a quantum information guy, and that really launched us on the quantum science and technology side,” says Thompson.

Dr. Barry Sanders, PhD, who joined as an Alberta iCORE Professor, started the Institute for Quantum Information Science (now the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology), an organization that leads research in key theoretical and experimental topics, as well as Quantum Alberta, a network of academic and industry experts from across the province.

Several years after that, with Dr. Wolfgang Tittel, PhD, starting at UCalgary as an industrial research chair to build and translate quantum communication, quantum at UCalgary started to see a fundamental expansion toward knowledge translation. Quantum was no longer just about discovery. Quantum was a whole new ecosystem involving everything from foundational research to the commercialization of quantum technologies.

“When I started in this field, quantum physics was a pure science,” says Thompson. “But as we discovered things, we started to discover tools that can be used more broadly in society, in industry and the corporate sector. We started to move on from Can I discover something and publish a paper about it? to Can I work with a company or organization, or establish a company myself, to start to market some of this intellectual property?” 

In 2022, Quantum City was born. The initiative is building quantum-focused fabrication infrastructure, new talent development programs and commercialization and adoption pathways to support the development of a vibrant economic and scientific hub right here in Calgary. 

A woman in a suit smiles at the camera

Erika Janitz.

Fritz Tolentino

Many of the Quantum City initiatives are what drew the university’s latest quantum hire, Dr. Erika Janitz, PhD, to Calgary. Janitz started almost exactly 25 years after Thompson.  An assistant professor in the Schulich School of Engineering, she works at the intersection of electrical engineering and physics to build diamond-based quantum technologies for long-distance communication and sensing. Specifically, Janitz’s lab will look for atom-like defects in diamonds for building things like quantum networks and molecular sensors.

She loves her research because it satisfies her desire to understand how things work while also allowing her to build useful technologies.

 “This field is attractive to me because you can do it all: develop the theory and perform simulations, design and build the experiment, take and analyze the data,” says Janitz. 

Janitz is also thrilled about Quantum City’s forthcoming qLab: a state-of-the-art cleanroom facility that will be dedicated to serving as a dynamic and collaborative centre for quantum innovation. 

“It’s really exciting that we will have the necessary infrastructure here at the university for our research to lead on an international level,” says Janitz.

She chose to make Calgary her home because of the widespread support and community when it comes to quantum research.

“It was important to me to work somewhere where it’s clear that your research is a priority. Quantum has been identified as an important area on the institutional, provincial and national scales,” she says. “It’s a vibrant, collaborative ecosystem. You’re not just an island, working alone.” 

Janitz hopes the excitement and traction we have now in Alberta leads to “a self-sustaining ecosystem,” where we have cutting-edge infrastructure, leading talent and the ability to train talent locally.

For Thompson, he wants to see a healthy, vibrant quantum technology centre here in Alberta, for quantum to be a catalyst for diversifying the economy and for the province to be the “go to” place for a broad range of industries looking for quantum solutions.

As for the past 25 years, Thompson knows it’s the very heart and soul of UCalgary that’s allowed quantum physics to grow and thrive the way it has.

“The University of Calgary bills itself as an entrepreneurial university. I know sometimes that can come off as just lip service, but I’ve been here 25 years and the opportunities that it’s offered me, I don’t think I would have seen anywhere else in the world. When you see what needs to be done, this institution will let you do it. It doesn’t just let you. It helps you.”

When Thompson walked into the Science B building in September 1998, there was no quantum physics group. And now? It’s “half the building and we’re taking over Earth Science.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” he continues, “and UCalgary has facilitated it all.”

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