Rice wins Moore Foundation grant for quantum vacuum research

Kono lab will probe hybrid states arising from matter-vacuum entanglement, establish community to pursue quantum vacuum electronics

Junichiro Kono

By Patrick Kurp
Special to the Rice News

Rice’s Junichiro Kono has been awarded a $2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to study the interactions of light and matter — without light.

Junichiro Kono
Junichiro Kono (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

“In the past, we used strong laser fields to modify and control materials properties, but with limited success,” said Kono, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-chair of the Rice Quantum Initiative. “Thanks to this grant, we will achieve that goal by engineering the fluctuating electromagnetic fields of the quantum vacuum surrounding the material inside optical cavities.

One consequence of quantum theory is that a vacuum cannot be thought of as empty space. It is full of fluctuating electromagnetic fields, or virtual photons, that correspond to their zero-point energy, even though the average number of photons is zero. Such short-lived vacuum fluctuations, Kono said, are behind some of “the most fascinating processes in the universe.”

He titled his award-winning project “Development of Terahertz Optical Cavities for Creation of Hybrid States of Matter” and said it could have far-reaching impacts.

“Recent experiments in our lab have demonstrated that light and matter can ultrastrongly couple, or hybridize, to an extreme degree, inside cavities,” Kono said. “An astounding aspect of such light-matter hybrids is the fact that the ‘light field’ to which the matter couples is not an external laser field but the vacuum fluctuation field in the cavity.

“The newly produced ground state, represented by a matter-vacuum entangled wavefunction, has characteristics that neither the original matter ground state nor the ordinary vacuum possesses,” he said.

Such vacuum-dressed matter, or matter-dressed vacuum, will make it possible to develop vacuum-enabled solid-state technology, he said. Ultrastrong coupling with a vacuum in cavity settings can create unusual modifications of material properties via quantum squeezing, including induced superconductivity and metal-insulator transitions. Solid-state devices could be revolutionized by coupling with the quantum vacuum. For quantum information processing, vacuum-enabled protocols have already been proposed.

“No federal agencies currently invest in this burgeoning field,” Kono said. “I am deeply grateful to the Moore Foundation for deciding to provide support for this blue-sky research. We plan to create an interactive, collaborative and multidisciplinary research community to pursue quantum vacuum electronics.”

Kono is the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Engineering, chair of Rice’s graduate program in applied physics and holds joint appointments in physics and astronomy and in materials science and nanoengineering.

– Patrick Kurp is a science writer in Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering.