UMN-led team receives $1.4M Keck Foundation Grant

UMN $1.4M Keck Foundation Grant

Researchers will test a new process that could make quantum devices more stable and efficient


(Minneapolis/St Paul, MN)  — July 12th, 2022 — A University of Minnesota Twin Cities-led team has received a $1.4 million award from the W. M. Keck Foundation to study a new process that combines quantum physics and biochemistry. If successful, the research could lead to a major breakthrough in the quantum computing field.

The project is one of two proposals the University of Minnesota submits each year to the Keck Foundation and is the first grant of its kind the University has received in 20 years. The University’s last Keck Foundation grant was awarded in July 2002, when researchers at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research received $4.5M to develop the 9.4 Tesla MRI system for humans.

Building efficient, working quantum computers has been a longtime goal for scientists around the world. Quantum computers have the potential to solve certain, very complex problems at an unprecedented fast rate. They have applications in fields like cryptography, information security, supply chain optimization, and could one day assist in the discovery of new materials and drugs.

However, one of the biggest challenges for scientists is that the information stored in quantum bits (the building blocks of quantum computers) is often short-lived. Early-stage prototype quantum computers do exist, but they lose the information they store so quickly that solving big problems of practical relevance is currently unachievable.

One approach researchers have studied to attempt to make quantum devices more stable is by combining semiconductors and superconductors to obtain robust states called Majorana modes, but this approach has been challenging and so far inconclusive since it requires very high-purity semiconductors. University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Vlad Pribiag, who is leading the project, has come up with a new idea that could yield stable Majorana quantum structures.

Pribiag’s proposed method leverages recent advances in DNA nanoassembly, combined with magnetic nanoparticles and superconductors, in order to detect Majoranas, which are theoretical particles that could be a key element for protecting quantum information and creating stable quantum devices.

“This is a radically new way to think about quantum devices,” Pribiag said. “When I heard about this technique of DNA nanoassembly, I thought it fit right into this problem I had been working on about Majoranas and quantum devices. It’s really a paradigm shift in the field, and it has tremendous potential for finding a way to protect quantum information so that we can build more advanced quantum machines to do these complex operations.”

The project, entitled “Topological Quantum Architectures Through DNA Programmable Molecular Lithography,” will span three years. Pribiag is collaborating with Columbia University Professor Oleg Gang, whose lab will handle the DNA nanoassembly part of the work.

About the W. M. Keck Foundation

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research and science and engineering.  The Foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth.  For more information, visit the Keck Foundation website.