Engineering atomic antennas for quantum sensing
Jennifer Choy makes atom-size antennas. They bear no resemblance to the telescoping rod that transmits pop hits through a portable stereo. But functionally, they’re similar. They’re quantum sensors, picking up tiny electromagnetic signals and relaying them in a way we can measure.
How tiny a signal? A quantum sensor could discern temperature changes in a single cell of human tissue or even magnetic fields originating at Earth’s core.
Jennifer Choy, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is developing technologies that could lead to ultraprecise accelerometers and magnetometers for navigation and for probing minuscule changes in a material’s electromagnetic fields.
“You can think of these quantum sensors as an atomic scale probe that allows you to be sensitive to and measure really localized changes in magnetic fields,” Choy said. “And you can extend your measurements to probe macroscopic magnetic features and other physical parameters like mechanical strain and temperature.”
Taking advantage of atoms’ quantum nature—which reveals itself only at nature’s smallest scales—and their sensitivity to external disturbances, these sensors exhibit extraordinary accuracy and precision, making their traditional counterparts look like blunt instruments by comparison.
For Choy, the challenge is to boost the efficiency with which these invisible instruments transmit information. The research is equal parts physics discovery and engineering, she says.
“I find the work exciting because it’s a good fit for the kind of hodgepodge training that I had,” said Choy, who is a member of both Q-NEXT, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Quantum Information Science Research Center led by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, and the National Science Foundation’s Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks, or HQAN. “I’m an applied physicist by training, and I don’t categorize myself as purely a physicist or engineer. But I really enjoy that intersection of fundamental science and engineering work.”
Light and matter
Choy works on quantum sensors in which electrons in quantum materials act as the antenna. The information they pick up can be read through their interactions with photons, the massless particles that carry electromagnetic information.
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