‘Silicon Prairie’ Ready for Quantum Leap

Nebraska is well known for corn and beef, but small towns in the state are also home to Charles Lindbergh’s first flying lessons and the invention of vise-grip locking pliers. Now, the National Science Foundation is betting on the Cornhusker State to help lead a high-stakes era of innovation as America gets ready for next-generation computer and security technology.

That bet takes the form of a $20 million grant, spread over 5 years, to be shared by four universities in Nebraska. The Foundation’s program was established to stimulate competitive research that targets scientists in qualifying areas — currently 25 states and three American territories — who have the ambition and expertise to conduct field-changing research but who have been typically overlooked in favor of larger centers on the coasts.

A global race is underway in the emerging field of materials science and technology that will change the way we see and measure our world and change the way we communicate, bank, and safeguard data.

The award is “one of the biggest achievements” in the career of Christian Binek, PhD, professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and director of the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience.

“Quantum science and technology is the next big thing. Missing out on this is not an option,” he says. Staples of modern life, such as computers, smartphones, light-emitting diode (LED) lights, and lasers, are all based on quantum mechanics, Binek explains.

And some of the projects the grant will support will lead to medical advances, he adds.

Medicine Turning to Quantum

Quantum science is enabling the development of new drugs and helping to improve diagnostic tools, such MRI machines that photograph the inside of the human body.

Among the projects the Nebraska scientists are working on is low-field MRI. If they can eliminate the superconducting coils that require liquid nitrogen for cooling, today’s big, bulky, prohibitively expensive MRI machines could become obsolete, Binek explains.

Patients would still need to be scanned, but that might happen with a handheld device, he says. Advances could also pave the way for 3-dimensional x-rays in vivid detail and color.

The potential workforce in Nebraska is part of “the missing millions” between the coasts who could further the world’s quantum revolution and advance other sciences but who struggle for funding and resources, says Tomasz Durakiewicz, PhD, program director in the Division of Materials Research at the National Science Foundation.

There is a “painful shortage” of quantum experts, so it is essential to build a qualified workforce, says Durakiewicz. “You need people who understand quantum mechanics, who understand coding and vacuum technology in one package, and we don’t have many people like that,” he adds. And for some projects, the requirement of a high security clearance and American citizenship narrows the pool of available experts.

From the Old Oregon Trail to the Silicon Prairie

The Nebraska grant money will be shared by four universities: University of Nebraska–Lincoln; University of Nebraska Omaha; University of Nebraska at Kearney; and Creighton University in Omaha. These institutions will partner with Nebraska’s community and tribal colleges — including Nebraska Indian Community College, Little Priest Tribal College, and Central Community College — as part of the educational and workforce-building facets of the grant.

Near the old Oregon Trail, where pioneers traversed Nebraska in large-wheeled covered wagons, a new kind of settler is moving into what is sometimes referred to as the Silicon Prairie, attracting investments from high-tech giants.

The state’s proposal for what it could do with the $20 million “was excellent,” but the region was also chosen because the state government is supportive of the collaboration and the infrastructure is already in place to enhance research efforts, says José Colom-Ustáriz, PhD, program director at the National Science Foundation.

“That is a good sign that these scientists can build a workforce that could potentially stay in the state,” he adds.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News, and Nurse.com, and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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