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The (Quantum) Mechanics' Shop

Subatomic Science Highlights Raytheon's Futuristic Research

Scientist Blake Johnson works with an electron beam evaporator, used to create small computer chips for Raytheon’s quantum computing research.

In an unassuming brick building in Cambridge, Mass., a lab buzzes – literally – with technology so powerful it could lead to the discovery of new planets, help detect cancer earlier, create hacker-proof computer networks and transmit live video from the surface of Mars.

Welcome to Raytheon’s hub of quantum computing, a new field that uses subatomic particles to store digital information. It’s one of hundreds of futuristic research programs at Raytheon, from “intelligent” power systems to computer chips made of diamond.

“We’re inventing things here,” said Jonathan Habif, a senior scientist at Raytheon BBN Technologies. “There’s so much technology that’s yet to be explored and discovered.”

Habif works in the Quantum Information Processing group, which is learning to use subatomic particles instead of silicon circuits to store the 1s and 0s that make up computer data. Unlike normal “bits” of data, quantum bits — or “qubits” can exist in both states at the same time.

Senior Scientist Jonathan Habif explains the lenses, photon detectors and other instruments in the Raytheon BBN Technologies optical communications lab. Habif is using quantum mechanics to develop new ways of transmitting information.

Scientists can use quantum technology to protect data by sending encryption keys encoded on photons, or tiny particles of light. If a third party tries to eavesdrop, the communication ends immediately.

“It’s secured by the laws of physics,” said Zachary Dutton, who leads the Quantum Information Processing group. “In an academic environment, you’d write a paper and leave it at that. But here we’re preparing technologies that can be used in actual applications.”

In laboratories around the world, Raytheon researchers are pushing new technologies to the edge of human knowledge. In nearby Andover, Mass. they’re putting circuits on slivers of artificial diamond to create more efficient electronics. In El Segundo, Calif. they’re building satellite sensors that can “see” the Earth in 22 bands of the electromagnetic spectrum at once.

"What we're doing here will change the world," Johnson said over the din. “I know it sounds corny, but it's true."

Other engineers are working on nanotechnology or building electrical systems to power missile-destroying lasers. In addition to customer-funded projects, Raytheon invests significant resources in research and development each year. The company’s engineering magazine, Technology Today, publishes hundreds of new Raytheon patents in every issue.

The View from Mars

Habif’s lab is filled with lenses, photon detectors, optical fibers and other instruments so precise that Habif can’t even be in the room during tests because his movement and body heat would affect the results.

A single ray of light coming into the room would throw off the quantum mechanics research he’s doing on optical sensing systems. So the lab has no windows.

Habif is developing receivers that use quantum mechanics to collect encoded information from the dimmest rays of light. With this technology, astronauts on Mars could use lasers to beam back live video and other information.

Changing the World

Researchers hope that quantum technology could eventually lead to lightning-fast computers that might aid everything from cancer research to astronomy.

Down the hall from Habif’s optics lab, a 5-foot-tall cylinder in the quantum computing lab “whooshes” like a high-pitched heartbeat. It’s the sound of helium and other gases being pumped in and out of the tank, known as a “dilution refrigerator.”

Raytheon researchers use this dilution refrigerator to create superconducting computer chips.

The device creates temperatures colder than any naturally-occurring place in the solar system — 1/100 of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero, to be exact.

Scientist Blake Johnson uses the extreme cold to forge superconducting computer chips. A quantum computer using these chips could be orders of magnitude more powerful than fastest desktop PCs, opening up whole universes of technological possibility.

"What we're doing here will change the world," Johnson said over the din. “I know it sounds corny, but it's true."

Last Updated: 09/18/2014

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