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With state grant, UMass Boston looks to boost quantum computing

Matthew Bell, associate professor of engineering at UMass Boston, at a quantum computing research facility on campus.MassTech Collaborative

Those advanced quantum computers you may have read about are still years away, partly because scientists need better tools to build them.

But some of those tools may soon be on the way, thanks to a new venture at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Western New England University in Springfield.

The two schools are splitting a $1 million state grant managed by the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. The money will be used to set up campus research facilities to help Massachusetts tech companies that are developing components for quantum computers.

”They’re seizing the opportunity they see in this quantum marketplace,” said Matthew Bell, associate professor of engineering at UMass Boston.


But Bell said that three such companies — Millimeter Wave Systems of Amherst, Cohasset’s Quantum Microwave, and Woburn-based JanisULT — lack the specialized testing facilities they’ll need to confirm that their products will work properly. Which is what the new grant is for.

Quantum computers store data in units called “qubits.” In a classical computer, a data bit can only be in one of two states, zero or one. In a quantum computer, a qubit can simultaneously be equal to zero and one, thanks to the weirdness of quantum physics. As a result, a qubit-based computer can (in theory) process massively greater amounts of data than any classical computer.

Scientists hope that quantum computers will be much better at immensely difficult challenges like predicting the weather or designing new pharmaceutical compounds. Giant companies like Google and IBM have already built experimental quantum machines, and similar efforts are underway in many other nations, including China, Japan, India, and Germany.

One way of building quantum computers uses chips similar to those in today’s computers but chilled to cryogenic temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero Fahrenheit. But it takes specialized microwave radio signals to move data through this kind of computer, and the microwave systems must be tested at these very low temperatures.


For instance, to read the results generated by a quantum computer, Millimeter Wave makes a microwave system designed to capture extremely weak radio signals coming from the machine’s qubits. But the company lacks a cryogenic facility to prove that the product works.

“The difficulty for small businesses is that we don’t have big research facilities where we can go and validate the product,” said Millimeter Wave president Chris Koh.

The new state grant will help solve the problem, by funding cryogenic test facilities at UMass Boston and Western New England University tailored for the development of quantum computing components.

The grant will also fund training programs to teach the principles of quantum computing to students, as well as engineers already in the workforce. Combined with support for local hardware makers, the grant could help establish a local ecosystem of suppliers and engineers.

That’ll mean more support for local quantum companies like Quera Computing, Zapata Computing, and Aliro Quantum, as well as others that are likely to emerge when quantum computing finally lives up to the hype.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him @GlobeTechLab.