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CHICAGO — Unbreakable coded messages.

Medical images with unprecedented resolution of the human body, down to single proteins.

Environmental sensors with unique insights into the planet's behavior.

Those are some of the tantalizing possibilities of a research partnership announced Monday between the University of Illinois and three Chicago institutions that is designed to unlock the potential of quantum science and technology — considered the next revolution in information science.

The UI's Urbana-Champaign campus, a pioneer in the field, is joining the University of Chicago and two national science laboratories, Argonne and FermiLab, in the Chicago Quantum Exchange, launched last year to promote quantum research.

The partnership creates one of the world's largest hubs for quantum research, bringing together more than 100 scientists and engineers from the four institutions with an "amazing infrastructure," a combination rarely seen at other institutions, said University of Chicago engineering Professor David Awschalom, director of the exchange and a senior scientist at Argonne.

"We're at the precipice of something really transformative," Awschalom said at Monday's press conference in Chicago.

Over the past decade, researchers collaborating across physics, engineering, computing and materials science have shown that quantum mechanics — a theory of physics that explains nature from the scale of tiny atoms to massive neutron stars — can be a powerful platform for information processing and technologies that will revolutionize cybersecurity, communication and computing.

Based on the strange properties of nature's smallest particles, which enable them to exist in more than one state at one time, quantum computing operations can be done much more quickly and use less energy than today's digital supercomputers.

"What we're learning to do is finally exploit these particles, bring them into the real world and develop new types of devices, materials and computational techniques," Awschalom said.

Officials hope the Quantum Exchange will help Chicago attract industry partnerships and government funding and make it a leader in quantum research and training.

"This is a milestone in research worldwide," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday. "I think the moment is now, and the place is Chicago."

Legislation that unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September would launch a National Quantum Initiative, committing $1.275 billion to quantum research over the next decade.

On Nov. 8-9, government officials, university researchers and industry leaders from Google, IBM, Microsoft and other firms will gather in Chicago for a two-day summit on quantum science and technology.

On Monday, the UI also announced the creation of the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center in Urbana. The $15 million investment includes a hiring initiative to expand the number of quantum science experts at Illinois, an education program to develop the next generation of quantum scientists and engineers, and state-of-the-art equipment to build quantum materials and devices.

Chancellor Robert Jones said the UI project will add "dynamic new capacity for discovery and innovation" to the Quantum Exchange.

He said the four institutions involved have been at the "intellectual epicenter" of quantum research for nearly two decades. Both universities have expertise in physics, computer science, electrical engineering and materials science, he said.

Argonne has pioneered new materials and devices for solid-state "qubits" — the quantum computer version of a bit. And Fermilab scientists are applying their expertise in superconducting accelerator technology to build quantum sensors, algorithms and simulations used in scientific research.

"This new branch of science was really born here in Illinois," Jones said. "This Chicago Quantum Exchange is a huge step forward in ensuring that the revolution in innovation and discovery that will come in this field will be anchored right here where it all started."

The initiative already has multiple projects under way, including one of the world's longest quantum communication links to test technology that could be the basis for an unhackable network, officials said. It will stretch 30 miles between Argonne in Lemont and Fermilab in Batavia.

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer predicted the discoveries will have a profound impact on economic development and national security.

The Quantum Exchange is based in the Hyde Park 53rd Street innovation district, which is anchored by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, designed to help faculty commercialize ideas and foster new businesses on Chicago's South Side. That facility is also home to a research collaboration between the UI and the University of Chicago announced last year to address pressing societal challenges, such as producing clean water or treating cancer.

The two schools are also founding members of the Discovery Partners Institute, anchor of the new statewide Illinois Innovation Network created to bring students and scholars together with industry to promote innovation.

In coming months, the two universities will be announcing other joint projects, from research partnerships to community collaborations that will benefit Chicago's South Side, Champaign-Urbana and the state, Zimmer said. The community projects will focus on youth entrepreneurship, business diversity, K-12 education and urban research labs, he said.

Jones said the partnerships solidify a promise he made upon his arrival in Urbana two years ago: to give the campus a "high-impact presence" in Chicago.

One of his first phone calls was from Zimmer, welcoming him to Illinois but also pitching ways the two schools could work together. And Emanuel said he traveled to Champaign-Urbana soon after Jones took over to "make sure the U of I came to Chicago."

"This is absolutely it," Jones said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).