Keeping Time with Diamonds, Precisely

Dirk Englund, assistant professor of electrical engineering and of applied physics, has recently won a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Young Faculty Award (YFA) to support research on what he calls a "new kind of ultra-precise clock.” Englund will receive $300,000 over two years to work on “Chip-Integrated Timing and Inertial Measurements.”
 
Dirk Englund
“This is a great honor,” says Englund. “If we’re successful, we’ll be able to build a precision solid-state clock that will have numerous applications in areas such as wireless communications and navigation.”
 
Englund and his group are developing a clock that uses the precession of a large number of electron spins in diamonds to keep time, unlike other clocks built in solids that typically rely on some kind of mechanical oscillator. It would be similar to an atomic clock but because it would be built in a solid—diamond, in this case—it could have great advantages in miniaturization, power consumption, and robustness.
 
“Think of it as an atomic clock that could be built into a small computer chip, integrated with other electronics on a circuit board,” Englund explains. “There are, no doubt, many technical and theoretical challenges in developing and optimizing such a device, but the potential upsides are very exciting.” 
 
“Dirk Englund’s work on this precision solid-state clock is an outstanding example of high-risk, high-pay-off research that is setting the pace in this field,” says Feniosky Peña-Mora, the School’s dean. “We at Columbia Engineering are very excited to count him among our community of very accomplished scholars who are advancing fundamental knowledge in their respective fields.”
 
Englund and his Quantum Photonics Group are exploring how to use spin states of electrons and nuclei for other applications as well, including imaging electrical signals in the brain. They are also developing new technologies that use the rules of quantum mechanics to compute and communicate in new ways, including a possible new type of massively parallel computer built in photonic integrated chips that use elementary particles as memories and pass information via single photons through optical waveguides. Such a chip-based quantum computer is one example of several different physical architectures being developed around the world, and would use quantum superpositions—particles existing in multiple states at the same time—to store and process enormous amounts of data in ways that are not possible on classical computers.
 
In 2011, Englund was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers, and a Sloan Research Fellowship in Physics. He holds a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology and an M.S. in electrical engineering and Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. After postdoctoral work in Harvard’s physics department, he joined Columbia’s electrical engineering department in 2010 as an assistant professor, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics.
 
Through the Young Faculty Award, DARPA identifies outstanding junior faculty members and exposes them to the Department of Defense (DoD), its needs, and DARPA’s program development process. YFA combines funding, mentoring, and networking with industry and DoD early in a recipient’s career to help them in their professional growth and in framing future research in the context of national defense needs. The long-term goal of the YFA program is to develop the next generation of academic scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in key disciplines who will focus a significant portion of their career on DoD and national security issues.
—Story by Holly Evarts
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