Research & Innovation

Stevens Professor Amasses $18M in Grant Funding, Envisions a Quantum World

Yuping Huang’s QuEST lab works on quantum tech and systems, including remote sensing, biomedical imaging, quantum AI, and other practical quantum devices.

Imagine a world where you (or your autonomous vehicle) can see around corners or through solid objects. Or where you pop in for routine medical imaging, and your doctor scans through your skin with the crisp resolution of a photo. What if complex tasks and thorny decisions could be accomplished in collaboration with intelligent robots capable of learning on the fly?

This is the future Yuping Huang, Gallaher associate professor of physics and director of the Center for Quantum Science and Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, sees in his mind’s eye. It’s a vision so compelling that Huang and his Laboratory for Quantum Enhanced Systems and Technology (QuEST) lab have earned $18 million in grant funding since he joined the Stevens faculty in 2014.

It’s all quantum

Huang’s field is quantum mechanics, a physics theory that describes how incredibly tiny things like atoms operate. Most people are familiar with classical mechanics: light acts like waves; solid matter behaves like particles; objects can only be in one place at a time.

But what if light sometimes acts like a particle, and solid matter sometimes behaves like a wave? What if the position of an object is a spectrum of probabilities, and one object can somehow exist in two places simultaneously? That’s quantum.

“If we get to the bottom of it, everything is quantum. It is just that in many cases, we don't need to call on quantum physics to understand,” Huang expounded. “I think quantum is beautiful because it’s the most fundamental theory I know that can explain nature well and maybe also who we are.”

Huang says quantum technology will be a game-changer, so it’s no surprise the organizations funding his research are major players. The 18 external awards he’s earned so far came from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, NASA, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy and Ball Aerospace.

“We are grateful for the trust and support by our sponsors,” Huang noted. “I have been fortunate to have a strong team so that we can really perform various impactful research on an aggressive agenda.”

One area of that research is remote sensing. The human eye collects light as it reflects off surfaces. It’s common sense that you need a direct line of sight between that surface and the viewer without any serious obstructions. You may be able to see through some light haze, but if thick fog rolls in? Forget about it.

But quantum-aided remote sensing requires very little light to work. For context, a flashlight sends out trillions of particles of light every second; but quantum sensors need just a few hundred photons or even one single photon to “see”.

“This is something we’ve been working on for quite a few years, and we now have a way to approach the performance limit as allowed by quantum mechanics…We’ve been able to see through the impossible,” Huang explained. “For example, we can see through one centimeter of tissue phantom. We’ve been able to see through very thick fog and through a piece of paper…If you’re behind a door…our technology will allow us to send a laser through the window without directly shining on you…so a little bit of the photons will bounce off [the wall], and by this we can reconstruct the 3D image of you.”

The potential applications are broad: from national defense to autonomous vehicles driving safely in reduced visibility or seeing around corners to predict hazards. Remote-sensing satellites could operate through cloud cover and more easily track the effects of climate change—like measuring a river’s depth or the thickness of a mountain’s snow cap or gauging forest health. In the medical world, remote sensing could mean high-resolution optical images of the structures beneath the skin or the interior of organs.

Making quantum accessible

Perhaps the most futuristic possibility is what could happen when quantum meets artificial intelligence (AI). The enhanced computing speed and capacity could boost AI to the point that it could perform complex tasks or make complicated decisions — at the speed of light. Huang says that that would make AI truly intelligent, and a lot more like humans.

“We’re pushing the boundary of science, but what is really exciting is that our effort here could be beneficial to our society of today and tomorrow” he mused. “Also, we are getting lots of help and making new friends with people from many different fields. That’s super nice. After all, we’re pretty lonely in this universe.”

This observation shines a light on another focus of Huang’s research: putting quantum in the hands of real people. Right now, quantum computers require temps near absolute-zero because quantum states fall apart in normal environments, a condition called decoherence. Huang wants to make quantum tech that’s practically relevant—meaning mass-producible, operated at room temperature, and turnkey.

Huang says this could fundamentally change society. That’s what happened when personal computers hit the market, but now he says that tech is capping the human imagination. Putting quantum devices into the hands of young people—especially those who, like himself as a child, refuse to accept face-value answers—is the next step toward whatever comes after quantum.

“Physics is very beautiful, and I could easily spend my life understanding it and enjoying the beauty of it, but I realized maybe there’s a slightly better way to spend my life, which is to bring quantum physics to many people…” Huang explained. “Each generation has its own mission… and maybe our next generation will be able to pick up from there because they will grow up with quantum. They can either push quantum to another level or find an even better physics theory. I look forward to either way they choose to go.”

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