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Joseph Lukens: Building networks of light

Joseph Lukens. Image credit: Carlos Jones, ORNL

In 2019, nine ORNL early career researchers were recognized with prestigious awards from the White House and the Department of Energy—the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE, and the DOE Early Career Research Program Award. We sat down with these promising young scientists to talk about their backgrounds and current research.

Joseph Lukens picked electrical engineering as his undergraduate major at the University of Alabama, thinking it might help him manipulate sound. 

“I thought it might help me become an audio engineer or something like that,” Lukens said. An avid bass guitar player and history buff, he’d been accepted to music programs but found better engineering scholarships. 

Now, four years after earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue University and joining ORNL as a Wigner Fellow, Lukens works to control not sound, but light. 

Specifically, he uses single light particles, photons, to “advance our ability to use light for quantum information,” he said.

“Quantum information processing could transform how we measure, process and communicate information,” Lukens said. It’s recognized for its potential to improve data security and solve currently unsolvable computational problems—capabilities owed to unique characteristics. 

In classical digital communication, information exists in discrete states of 0 and 1. Quantum information differs because quantum bits, or qubits, can exist as 0 and 1 simultaneously in the fragile state of “superposition.” The fact that photons are both waves and particles means that their 0 and 1 states can add together and interfere, like two different waves, even though only one particle is involved. Because these states are so sensitive to disruption, qubits make good sensors and secure data channels. 

But for building networks, these qualities can cause major problems. 

Lukens’ Early Career Award-winning proposal, “Scalable architectures for hybrid quantum/classical networking,” seeks to overcome some of those barriers.

Using quantum nodes that communicate through the color of light, he’ll investigate ways to build networks that support coexistent classical and quantum information—a difficult task, since quantum information is easily destroyed by interference from classical data. He’ll also scale up networks and develop “transducers” that can convert information between systems.   

It’s a big challenge, but that’s never bothered Lukens.

“That’s how we move science forward,” he said. “We have to take risks and work hard to deliver on them. When you’re able to figure out solutions, there’s no feeling like it in the world.”—Abby Bower