Defense Spending at Duke: So Much More than Meets the Eye

Efforts to create a trapped-ion quantum computer spun off into a VC-funded partnership called IONQ Inc. Photo: IONQ Inc.

Generals may fight the last war, but researchers fight the next. In 2017, Duke performed close to $60 million dollars in research sponsored by the Department of Defense and Defense-related agencies to investigate the future of conflict and the avenues those conflicts may take. Although military objectives fund projects, research done at Duke has myriad implications. From quantum computers to “invisibility cloaks,” only means and imagination limit the future. As a locus of America’s research infrastructure, Duke negotiates that future every day.

According to Vice Provost of Research Lawrence Carin, “Duke has long been a leader in performing research of importance to national security, and that fundamental research has often translated to breakthroughs and technology that extends beyond defense.” However, defense-related work is not just an essential element of Duke’s research portfolio, but is also vital to the US and global economies.

In an effort to lead the world’s technological development, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) awarded a five-year, $31.9 million grant to a Duke/Maryland/Georgia Tech partnership dubbed Error-corrected Universal Reconfigurable Ion-trap Quantum Archetype or EURIQA. Led by Jungsang Kim, Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University, this major multi-year award funds the nation’s quantum computing experts.

Contrary to standard computers, a quantum computer allows data to exist in multiple states at a time, thus multiplying its computational potential. Traditional computers represent data in ‘1’s or ‘0’s, on or off. Because an atom’s quantum spin can point in an infinite number of directions, a quantum computer can theoretically represent data in an infinite number of varieties.

Kim’s work on quantum computers uses individually trapped atoms where the internal states of those atoms represent different information. The basics are all in place. The trapped ion “switches” operate. They simply need to be arranged in a complex enough manner that allows both computation and error-correction.

The difference in representational state is as different from current binary code as an abacus is to a MacBook. Whichever group pioneers and standardizes the technology will lead the next century of innovation, invention and large-scale data analysis.

As difficult as it may be to conceptualize the technological impact of a quantum computer, at least one can see it. David Smith, Augustine Scholar and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, works on something more transparent.

Using a “cloak” made of metamaterials precisely arranged in concentric circles around an object, Smith and his lab have made an object ‘invisible’ to microwaves. Metamaterials are artificial composites that interact with electromagnetic waves in ways that natural materials cannot.

In the frontiers of science, conceptual boundaries break down. Technically, the cloak has neither a reflection nor a shadow. Taking advantage of microwave properties, the metamaterial designed by Smith and his lab bends microwaves around an object and restores them to their original form as if they had passed through empty space. Although metamaterials that can manipulate the visible light spectrum are still speculation, Smith and his lab have already set the stone for microwave “invisibility.”

Not limited to his “cloaking” device, a variety of US government agencies have funded Smith’s plasmonics work over the years: from the Army Research Office and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to the Office of Naval Research. His work stretches from acoustic metamaterials and 3-D printing to transformation optics and wireless power transfer. With the gains made in microwave “invisibility,” his most famous work is also his brightest.

In cases where one cannot avoid the enemy, force may be required. When extraordinary measures need to be taken, Sheila Patek, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Duke, knows extraordinary power.

Her work uncovers the secret strength of mantis shrimp. Peacock mantis shrimp use a hammer-like appendage to smash open snail shells for food. Her lab did high speed imaging on the hammer movement to reveal that peacock mantis shrimp can reach maximum speeds of 12-23 m/s.

However, the remarkable feat is not just the speed. Because the shrimp’s hammer moves so fast, the water cavitates (vaporizes) when the limb strikes the prey. Cavitation is a destructive phenomenon. Wen these vapor bubbles collapse, they cause a small implosion in the water which produces heat, light and sound. The mantis shrimp’s biology allows it to essentially create an explosion under water generating tremendous force disproportionate to its size.

Her work is funded in part by the Army Research Office’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (ARO-MURI) grant program that supports research teams whose efforts intersect more than one traditional science and engineering discipline.

Her experimental insights help expand the possibilities of both bio-mimicry and underwater kinetic engagement. As traditional large submarines find themselves easier to track and slower to reach conflict areas, small-scale underwater autonomous systems will fill the void. Those smaller systems will require unique kinetic systems that can wreak destruction disproportionate to their size, just like the Mantis Shrimp.

But the lines from research to product and invention to innovation are difficult to follow sometimes. Vice Provost Carin offered Professor Richard Fair’s work as an example. “[Richards] performed research for DARPA on microfluidics devices. That technology was translated to a startup, founded by the PhD students supported by DARPA. The company, Advanced Liquid Logic, was acquired several years ago by the gene-sequencing company Illumina, which was developed under DOD fundamental research, and is today being used every day to impact gene analysis and testing around the world. The technology is advancing the health of US soldiers, and everyone else.”

As with much great research, paradigm-breaking discoveries trickle down from government needs to consumer wants. The quantum computer of today may be the hand-held device of tomorrow. What once weighed 40 pounds may one day weigh two. Great research is not simply about making things that didn’t exist before. Great research applies imagination. The long-term results of defense-related funding at Duke will defend the warfighter and advance the nation’s strategic interests, but they will also further technological progress one ion at a time.