The massive intersection of James Avenue and East Boughton Road in Bolingbrook, Illinois, looks like many other crossroads in suburban America. A drive-through Starbucks keeps watch over 15 lanes of turning and merging mid-size SUVs, most headed for the sprawling parking lots of the Promenade shopping mall to the south, a few others en route to the shooting gallery and gun shop across Interstate 355 to the east.
Few of the people in the SUVs realize they’re driving over part of America’s blossoming research into quantum information technology. Beneath the interstate, entangled photons—quantum particles moving at the speed of light—are teleporting to and from the Argonne National Laboratory in the next town over, through repurposed fiber-optic cables that make up one of the longest land-based quantum networks in the nation.
Researchers hope to use the 52-mile quantum test site in Bolingbrook and others like it to prove that you can trap information inside a quantum state of matter (like a photon) in one location, send it somewhere else, and access it completely intact on the other end.
They need to factor in the challenges of frozen ground, the sun’s radiation, and vibrations from all those vehicles traveling overhead, but if they can prove it, they’ll have invented a way of communicating that makes 5G seem quaint. Researchers at other laboratories are simultaneously trying to feed algorithms into similar elementary states of matter, known as quantum bits, and have them come out transformed correctly at the end of the computation. If that’s successful, they’ll have an entirely new type of computer on their hands.