MSU-Industry partnership awarded $10.5 million by Air Force for advances optics research
Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service-December 18, 2019
BOZEMAN — Under a $10.5 million Air Force contract awarded in September and made possible by a new Montana State University research facility, MSU researchers will assist local high-tech company S2 Corp. with developing next-generation optics technology.
Much of the technical effort involved in the partnership between MSU and S2 Corp. will take place in the Applied Research Lab and other research centers on campus. The 20,000-square-foot ARL building, expected to be completed in January, will allow university faculty, students, and industry partners to work on energy- and defense-related research projects previously out of reach due to the lack of a secure facility.
MSU project leader Joe Shaw, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, said the new contract is an example of the opportunities now available to MSU because of the new building, which meets security requirements for classified research.
"This is a very cutting-edge technology," said Shaw, Director of MSU's Optical Technology Center. The three-year project involves integrating sophisticated signal-processing techniques developed by S2 Corp. with new components for flight testing a technology for detecting an exceptionally wide range of radio frequencies, and also applications of lidar, in which laser beams are used like radar to detect and map objects. MSU's OpTec, as well as MSU’s Spectrum Lab directed by professor Randy Babbitt, and the Montana Microfabrication Facility directed by professor David Dickensheets are partners on the contract.
The project builds on a long history of MSU working with the local optics company, according to S2 Corp. CEO and President Kris Merkel. The new building streamlines the process and opens doors for new projects while allowing MSU to be more integral in the classified portions of research, he said.
"It's very promising," Merkel said of the new contract. "We'll be working hard on this effort as a team, and proposing new efforts like this where we can continue collaborative research, development test and evaluation with MSU and other partners."
According Babbitt, professor in the Department of Physics in MSU's College of Letters and Science, the new facility "means we can go after more ambitious projects that are multi-tiered in terms of research, development, and application. It's a great opportunity for students to see how technology transitions from the fundamental to the applied."
Both MSU undergraduate and graduate students will contribute to the project, and some will gain security clearances that will be an asset to them if they pursue careers in photonics, aerospace, or energy, Shaw noted. "There's a huge demand out there for students with clearances," he said.
Montana’s U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester helped secure Department of Defense funding that led to the $10.5 million contract. The MSU portion of the funding is $4.7 million.
"I’m glad that Montana is home to the S2 Corporation and several other companies that are global leaders in photonics and sensor technology," Daines said. "MSU’s research in photonics played a big part in growing this important industry in Montana, and I’m pleased to support research that continues this close and important industry-academia collaboration."
Tester said, "Ensuring our military has top-of-the line technology is critical for our national security and starts with smart investments. S2 Corporation and MSU are doing exactly that — partnering together to provide cutting-edge research capabilities that drive innovation into the future, while boosting jobs for folks in our state."
S2 Corp. was formed in 2005 and has supported, prior to this award, over $7 million in fundamental and applied research efforts at MSU.
The Applied Research Laboratory was approved by the Montana University System Board of Regents in 2016 and groundbreaking took place in Feb. 2018 for the facility on the MSU Innovation Campus, which is west of South 19th Avenue between College and Garfield streets. The nearest similar facility is the Space Dynamics Lab in Utah.
MSU researchers receive $6 million to advance quantum internet
BOZEMAN — Universities were among the first participants in the long-distance computer network now called the internet, playing an important role in demonstrating and developing the technology in the 1970s. Now, with a $6 million research contract, Montana State University is poised to contribute to one of the internet's biggest advances since its creation.
The two-year funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory will support a team of MSU researchers as part of an international effort to develop what's called the quantum internet, which harnesses the complex properties of light to interconnect quantum computers and improve speed and security.
"We're looking a decade or more ahead, and this is where the internet is going," said project leader John Roudas, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. "This is a very good opportunity for MSU to play a leading role in this arena."
The backbone of the conventional internet is a fiber optic network that relays bits of digital data as pulses of light. The MSU team will explore the cutting-edge technology needed to relay pairs of light particles called “entangled photons” that can encode information with mind-bending behavior explained by quantum physics — such as being able to interact with each other even when separated by large distances. Quantum computers operate on similar principles to perform certain tasks much faster than regular computers can.
The project will involve installing an experimental network on MSU's Bozeman campus to test whether existing, specialized, multicore fiber optic cables, which were originally designed for high-capacity internet communication, can also convey the delicate quantum signals. "There are only a few other field trials like this in the world right now," said Roudas, the department's Gilhousen Telecommunications Chair.
The quantum internet isn't intended to replace its conventional counterpart but rather to expand it so that regular and quantum computers can be interconnected using a single network. In addition, the quantum internet will enable a new level of security for online transactions and other confidential communications, according to Roudas. As things are now, determined hackers can stealthily read and copy the digital "keys" that encrypt data sent over today's networks, but entangled photons would be disturbed by such eavesdropping, alerting users to compromised security. That means encryption keys can be reliably sent over quantum channels and then used to decipher encrypted data sent over the conventional internet. MSU’s experiments into doing this over multicore cables could help streamline development of the quantum internet and enable faster exchange of the quantum encryption keys over the multiple parallel channels. Additionally, a major focus of the project is exploring ways of sending data — not just encryption keys — in quantum form.
"There's a huge worldwide effort on this, and there aren't many labs that can do this kind of work," said project member Krishna Rupavatharam, associate director of MSU's Spectrum Lab, a photonics research lab under MSU's Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Graduate Education. Although some quantum networks are already operating, the technology is in its infancy, and MSU is uniquely positioned to develop some of the missing pieces, he said.
Since 1999, Spectrum Lab has served as a hub for advanced physics and engineering research that has spun off many of the private companies that make up Bozeman's optics and photonics industry. Now, some of those technologies — such as materials that can precisely manipulate the properties of laser light — are showing promise for applications in the quantum internet, Rupavatharam noted.
"We've been a leader in these photonics materials for decades," said Charles Thiel, a senior research scientist in the physics department and Spectrum Lab. Working closely with Rupavatharam, he will develop hardware that can receive and store the quantum signals, a critical component of the "quantum repeaters" needed to store, amplify and transport quantum signals over greater distances to make the quantum internet feasible. The work will expand on research that formerly took Thiel to faraway, specialized facilities for testing but that will now be possible at MSU because of the project's experimental network.
"Being able to do this work at MSU allows us to play a much bigger role in this quantum effort," he said