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Quantum DNA research receives $5M grant from the Department of Energy

collage of staff images
qDNA Research Group members

Boise State’s Quantum DNA (qDNA) Research Group received a Phase II renewal grant of $5 million from the Department of Energy Basic Energy Science’s (BES) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR) as part of a broader announcement of funded energy-related research projects.

Composed of five research teams that span multiple departments and colleges at Boise State, and involving almost 30 faculty, professional staff and students, the qDNA Research Group is pioneering the use of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as a programmable, self-assembling architecture that organizes light-absorbing dye molecules to achieve quantum entanglement.

Quantum entanglement occurs when the excited state of one molecule in the aggregate cannot be described independent of the excited state of another, and is due to a collective interaction between the molecules.

Studying entanglement is critical because it has applications in quantum information science, including quantum simulation, quantum communication and quantum computing. For the qDNA group, their specific quantum mechanical research may have applications in energy, such as solar, medical diagnostics for both humans and animal, and much faster and more capable computers that operate at reduced power consumption.

“To think that mimicking biological systems (light harvesting systems in plants and some algae and bacteria) might be able to sustain quantum entanglement and do so at room temperature is simply amazing,” said Bill Knowlton, grant lead and professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSMSE) and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I’m most proud that, here at Boise State, we have assembled five teams of very talented students, staff and faculty that encompass a broad array of disciplines that have demonstrated a high level of collaboration.”

Phase I funding advanced the group’s understanding of novel dye materials useful for pursuing entanglement, design rules for manipulation of dye, dye aggregate, and DNA-templated dye structure-property relationships, and the theoretical, computational, instrument, and methodological advances needed to create, measure, and control quantum entanglement.

Phase II funding will make it possible for the group to establish dye aggregates with desirable structure-property relationships that enable realizing entangled states and explore theoretically complementary approaches for measuring entanglement.

“The group continues to contribute at a national and international level to the much-needed engineering and science research in quantum entanglement, as recognized by this new Phase II award,” said JoAnn Lighty, dean of the College of Engineering.

Quantum entanglement and the innovative Boise State approach

The qDNA research groups use various modifications of the DNA architecture to bring dye molecules close together so that they work collectively to promote basic aspects of quantum entanglement in dye aggregates.

Aggregating dyes enables absorbed light energy to be shared between the dyes, an essential element of entanglement, by the creation of an exciton. An exciton is an electrically neutral quasiparticle consisting of an electron (negatively charged) and hole (positively charged), whose excited-state energy is shared between dyes. The strength, or rate, of sharing is determined by how rapidly the dyes exchange energy and how they orient relative to each other. Entanglement occurs when the excited state of one dye in the aggregate cannot be described independent of the excited state of another dye and is due to this collective interaction.

“The Phase I award facilitated extending our studies of exciton delocalization in aggregates employing dyes beyond those commercially available off-the-shelf to custom dyes of our own design that enables us to build a knowledge base by which dyes most suitable for studies of exciton entanglement can be identified,” said Bernard Yurke, a College of Engineering Distinguished Research Fellow and co-lead of the DOE grant.

qDNA Research Team Goals

In a truly integrated, transdisciplinary approach, each of the five research teams will play a vital role in advancing this work with Phase II funding. Through their nuanced explorations, the group’s ultimate goal is to continue the development of quantum molecular theory. Through their research, the team intends to advance the methodologies needed to create, measure and control entanglement, and develop the theory to enable the measurement of entanglement.

The Dye Synthesis Team and DNA Construct Synthesis Team will work together to pursue a two-prong strategy for developing new potential dye materials and their attachment to different DNA scaffolds with key industry collaborator SETA BioMedicals. The teams will also be working to further develop Boise State’s own in-house dye synthesis capabilities geared toward mimicking nature’s dyes: chlorophylls.

“Embedded into a protein scaffold, chlorophylls constitute the green leaf’s photosynthetic apparatus where quantum entanglement has been observed at room temperature,” explained Dye Synthesis Team lead and research scholar Olga Mass. “Our team is going to synthesize stable mimics of natural chlorophylls with photophysical properties fine-tuned for achieving and detecting entanglement. Unlike the green leaf, the synthetic chlorophylls will be organized into aggregates with the help of a DNA scaffold.”

Additionally, the DNA Construct Synthesis Team, in collaboration with SETA Biomedicals, will investigate the effects of dye and nucleic acid properties on quantum behavior using steady-state optical spectroscopy techniques.

“We are using DNA to precisely place the dyes and to control their quantum mechanical properties,” said Jeunghoon Lee, an associate professor in Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as well as the team lead for the DNA Construct Synthesis team. “Using DNA is currently the best way to manipulate the molecular orientation of the dyes down to the 2 nm scale.”

The Ultrafast Spectroscopy Team will examine exciton properties and time evolution (on the femtosecond and picosecond timescale) of exciton lifetimes (i.e., how long do the dyes continue to exchange energy or maintain “coherence”) via advanced ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopies.

“Boise State’s one-of-a-kind femtosecond laser light sources will enable us to both generate coherences and directly measure them, including their important properties such as rates of sharing and dephasing,” said Ultrafast Spectroscopy team lead and senior research scholar Ryan Pensack.

The Single Molecule Characterization Team will determine DNA-templated dye placement precision, an important validation step to confirm design control. The Single Molecule Characterization Team can measure the properties of single aggregates using super-resolved fluorescence microscopy—a technique that received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Associate Professor Wan Kuang of electrical and computer engineering and Single Molecule Characterization Team lead said, “The Phase II award allows us to enhance the technique to capture time transients of molecules at microseconds resolution.”

The Theory and Simulation Team will continue to advance theoretical modeling of DNA-templated dye aggregates and computational methods that integrate and validate experimental results from the other teams and to guide experiments.

“Dye aggregates and DNA are complex and challenging for traditional modeling methods to simulate,” said Lan Li, an associate professor and Theory and Simulation Team lead. “We will combine data-driven and multiscale modeling methods to accelerate predicting dye structures, properties, and interactions with DNA. Such integrated methods will select dye candidates with desired properties for the other teams and develop design rules to guide their experiments.”

“We are so pleased with this new award, said Nancy Glenn, interim Vice-President of Research and Economic Development. “The Quantum DNA Research Group is doing fascinating research using DNA to template dye molecules to advance the understanding of quantum entanglement at room temperature, with ultimate applications in quantum information systems. They have assembled an ultra-talented group of students, postdocs, staff and faculty that exemplifies what is possible at Boise State University and its ‘blue turf thinking’. Further, the federal investment affirms Quantum DNA’s excellence and Boise State’s growing national and competitive research profile.”

For more information about this award, read the qDNA Research Group’s full press release at: