Pioneering degree opens up quantum world to undergraduates

UNSW degree, thought to be first of its kind in world, aims to stay ahead of quantum engineering curve and meet surging global demand for skills

July 23, 2020
UNSW Sydney Scientia Professor Andrea Morello electrical engineering quantum mechanics

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: objects can be in more than one place or state at a time, in a process known as “superposition”. And they can mysteriously influence each other – theoretically, from either end of the universe – in a process known as “entanglement”.

Such are the weird properties of the world at the atomic scale. Now, the quantum world is being opened up to bachelor’s level students, with UNSW Sydney launching what is thought to be the world’s first undergraduate degree of its type. The four-year bachelor’s of quantum engineering (honours) will start with two years of standard electrical engineering before students move into computer labs to simulate quantum systems.

Quantum mechanics has been beguiling scientists for more than a century. Albert Einstein, who never quite accepted it despite having helped to pioneer it, famously disparaged entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”. But higher degree students have explored the field for the past few decades using high-tech gadgetry such as ion traps, vacuum chambers and freezers that chill their contents to marginally above absolute zero.

“It’s not just pen and paper, solving differential equations like you do in a physics course,” said Andrea Morello, Scientia professor of quantum engineering at UNSW Sydney, who conceived the new course. “You simulate complex and rich quantum phenomena. It sinks into the students’ minds in a way that traditional quantum physics courses do not allow.”

Students will spend their fourth year in custom-built labs, manipulating entangled light particles and “Q-bits” – single atoms, nuclei or electrons that form the building blocks of quantum computers. They will visualise their experiments using oscilloscopes and photon detectors.

The degree programme is an expanded version of a postgraduate course in “quantum devices” that Professor Morello developed in 2008. “I really wanted to turn this into an undergraduate offering,” he said. “Students have more capacity to absorb things if you catch them earlier.

“Quantum engineering is the electrical engineering of the 21st century. It’s like microelectronics and microwave engineering last century. If you are an electronics engineer in 2020, there’s no defensible reason why you would not want quantum engineering skills.”

The only comparable course is thought to be a quantum technology major in a science and technology degree at Aalto University in Helsinki. That is the brainchild of Mikko Möttönen, formerly a postdoctoral researcher at UNSW.

The Sydney university has cultivated a reputation in quantum technology on the back of its breakthroughs in silicon-based quantum computing, a still largely theoretical field that harnesses the multiple states of Q-bits to generate vastly more processing power than the binary properties of conventional transistors.

But Professor Morello highlighted the quantum-enabled devices already available commercially, such as quantum-dot TVs – which feature “very stable, bright colours” – and newly released mobile phones that use “quantum random number generators” for extraordinarily secure communications.

And quantum physics has long underpinned contemporary technology from semiconductors, lasers and fibre optics telecommunications to global positioning systems and magnetic resonance imaging.

The Growing Australia’s Quantum Technology Industry report, released this year by national science agency CSIRO, predicted that the field could burgeon into a local A$4 billion (£2.2 billion) industry employing 16,000 people by 2040.

Professor Morello said this was the tip of the iceberg. “As it stands, there simply aren’t enough qualified engineers to fill the jobs needing quantum skills anywhere in the world,” he added.

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