Virginia Tech Department of Physics faculty will lead a three-day workshop in Arlington, Virginia, focused on encouraging convergent research in quantum information, which could provide communications a revolutionary boost in security and privacy.

Sophia Economou, associate professor, and Edwin Barnes, assistant professor, both of physics in the College of Science, are heading the National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) workshop titled “Quantum Leap: Workshop on Quantum Elements of Secure Communication.” The workshop is part of a larger NSF effort, called Growing Convergent Research, that addresses five of the federal agency’s 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments, with the five including data revolution; the “new” arctic; human-technology frontiers; predicting phenotypes, and the topic led by Economou and Barnes, quantum communication.

The workshop will be held Dec. 3-5 at the Virginia Tech Research Center – Arlington, Virginia Tech’s base in the Northern Capital Region. Roughly 45 attendees from universities, national laboratories, and government agencies are expected. The participants were chosen from a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines, including physics, engineering, computer science, mathematics, and chemistry.

“Our workshop will identify challenges and opportunities in the field of quantum communications, and how convergence – deep and sustained collaborations across scientific disciplines – will advance discovery and innovation in this field,” said Economou, who joined the physics department in 2015. “The workshop will involve extensive discussion in small groups in addition to four presentations each day.”

Quantum mechanics carries the potential to revolutionize communication security because of basic principles that forbid the copying of quantum information and enable the detection of an eavesdropper, marking a potential boom in individual privacy and national security, according to Economou and Barnes.

Yet, a challenge with building such networks is the fragile nature of quantum information, which makes designing communication protocols, engineering components, and integrating the two an ambitious interdisciplinary undertaking, the researchers added. To tackle these roadblocks, researchers in the fields of single-photon sources, nanophotonic engineering, optical networks, single-photon detectors, and quantum communication theory will give presentations, followed by small-group brainstorming sessions.

The workshop will address a central issue of the NSF’s Quantum Leap Big Idea, related to development of secure and scalable modes of communication based on quantum phenomena, according to a news release from the federal agency. Additional university winners funded by NSF in the category of “The Quantum Leap” include the University of Chicago and a third team comprised of researchers from MIT, Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University, and Penn State University. These workshops will be held at separate dates and locations.

“Quantum computation and communications is a major area of interest for countries and leading international corporations,” said Mark Pitt, chair of the physics department. “Ed and Sophia have quickly established a major program in quantum information science at Virginia Tech, and this award is a significant recognition of their leadership. I’m pleased that our research directions at Virginia Tech are well-aligned with what the National Science Foundation views as a big idea for future investments.”