If we can harness it, quantum technology promises fantastic new possibilities. But first, scientists need to coax quantum systems to stay yoked for longer than a few millionths of a second.

A team of scientists at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering announced the discovery of a simple modification that allows quantum systems to stay operational—or “coherent”—10,000 times longer than before. Though the scientists tested their technique on a particular class of quantum systems called solid-state qubits, they think it should be applicable to many other kinds of quantum systems and could thus revolutionize quantum communication, computing and sensing.

The study was published Aug. 13 in Science.

“This breakthrough lays the groundwork for exciting new avenues of research in quantum science,” said study lead author David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “The broad applicability of this discovery, coupled with a remarkably simple implementation, allows this robust coherence to impact many aspects of quantum engineering. It enables new research opportunities previously thought impractical.”

Down at the level of atoms, the world operates according to the rules of quantum mechanics—very different from what we see around us in our daily lives. These different rules could translate into technology like virtually unhackable networks or extremely powerful computers; the U.S. Department of Energy released a blueprint for the future quantum internet in an event at UChicago on July 23. But fundamental engineering challenges remain: Quantum states need an extremely quiet, stable space to operate, as they are easily disturbed by background noise coming from vibrations, temperature changes or stray electromagnetic fields.

Thus, scientists try to find ways to keep the system coherent as long as possible. One common approach is physically isolating the system from the noisy surroundings, but this can be unwieldy and complex. Another technique involves making all of the materials as pure as possible, which can be costly. The scientists at UChicago took a different tack.

“With this approach, we don’t try to eliminate noise in the surroundings; instead, we “trick” the system into thinking it doesn’t experience the noise,” said postdoctoral researcher Kevin Miao, the first author of the paper.

Read more at UChicago News.

From left: Scientists Kevin Miao, Chris Anderson and Alexandre Bourassa work on quantum research in the Awschalom lab at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Photo by David Awschalom.