EPB, which launched the nation's first citywide high-speed internet network more than a decade ago, is adding a potentially bigger communications and computing network next month and is offering researchers and startup companies the chance to get in on the ground floor of the new venture.
The city-owned utility will launch its first quantum node in July when it opens a shared workspace on the first floor of EPB headquarters in downtown Chattanooga for startup companies and research labs to test and share quantum technologies.
EPB President David Wade said Thursday he is already talking with dozens of potential users of the new communications and computing platform, both privately owned businesses and public research laboratories around the globe. Because quantum technologies offer the capability to encrypt and share far more data, quantum has the potential to dramatically boost computer calculations, cybersecurity and communications.
"From the quantum community, we've had a tremendous amount of interest, and we've already submitted joint letters with 22 different grant proposals that would use the network to test their ideas," Wade said during a tour of the new facility Thursday.
EPB readies downtown Chattanooga lab
The business consulting firm McKinsey recently estimated that investors in 2022 poured $2.35 billion into quantum technology startups, which include companies in quantum computing, communications and sensing. By 2035, McKinsey projects the business value of quantum computing for the automotive, chemical, financial services and life sciences industries could total over $1.3 trillion.
"We're offering something here that no other American city has," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said Thursday during a tour of the new quantum work lab at EPB. "We're literally standing on the ground floor of what could be the next major industry for Chattanooga."
EPB began testing quantum technologies five years ago in a research partnership with a San Diego-based technology firm, Qubitekk, that was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a more secure electric grid. Qubitekk developed a means of using EPB's fiber optic network to connect quantum nodes and allow researchers and startup companies to share information and test technologies on what will be the first commercial quantum network in the world in Chattanooga.
Quantum computers will be able to solve problems too complex for today's computers to figure out, including solving the algorithms behind encryption keys that protect data and the internet's infrastructure, Dunan Earl, a quantum physicist who heads Qubiteckk, said.
EPB has invested $4.5 million to work with Qubitekk to develop the first commercial quantum network, Wade said.
"We think we will pay that back in the first five years" from users wanting to test new quantum technologies, he added.
The prices and details about hourly rates for using the new network are still being adjusted, but initial interest indicates the network should pay for itself and could be a major business recruitment tool for Chattanooga, Wade said.
The quantum-protected network developed by Qubitekk and field tested on EPB's grid in Chattanooga won a 2022 Edison Gold Award for communications and cybersecurity.
"This application can be used as an unbreakable cybersecurity option today and also includes technology that can be a precursor for emerging quantum networks," Earl said after winning the top research and development honor.
Since EPB announced its plans to develop a commercial quantum network, news and social media reports about the Chattanooga project have been viewed more than 33 million times around the world, EPB Communications Vice President J. Ed. Marston said.
The 33 million media impressions came from stories in Bloomberg, MarketWatch, Fierce Telecom, and Light Reading along with continuing coverage in quantum-focused outlets such as Inside Quantum and The Quantum Computing Report, Marston said.
"We are gaining global attention for this," Marston said.
The technology harnesses single particles of light, or photons, to distribute cryptographic keys that can be used to secure control signals with quantum keys to protect the electric grid, Earl said. The technology developed working with researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory brings the security assurances of quantum communication to electric grid systems while opening the way for the development of commercially available quantum networks.
EPB is developing the quantum network in Chattanooga "to accelerate the private efforts of universities, private companies and other national research organizations to bring quantum technologies to market," EPB Chair Vicky Gregg said at the Quantum World Congress in Washington, D.C., last fall.
In the process, some of those companies may locate in Chattanooga, Gregg said.
Last year, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three scientists for their work on quantum entanglement and advancing the field of quantum information. Quantum entanglement refers to the way in which two particles are correlated, or tied to each other, even when they are separated by large distances.
EPB has converted part of the first floor of its seven-story headquarters to house one of the quantum nodes and provide meeting rooms, offices and classrooms for quantum technology companies to locate operations in Chattanooga and test out their inventions and applications, Wade said. On Thursday, EPB officials showed off the facility to U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan who previously headed economic development for the state of Tennessee under then-Gov. Bill Haslam.
EPB has another quantum node at its 10th Street substation and will add other nodes as needed to expand the reach and capability of the new commercial quantum network, Wade said.
The new quantum network comes more than a decade after EPB used its fiber network across its 600-square-mile service territory to create the first citywide high-speed internet network in the Western Hemisphere and began promoting Chattanooga as Gig City.
"This could be a quantum move ahead from that," Kelly said.
EPB's QUANTUM NETWORK
What is it? Quantum computers are expected to be significantly faster than today's processors. While computers process information on a base of zeroes and ones, quantum networks will also process information using the decimals in between zero and one — allowing much larger volumes of data to be processed at significantly faster speeds.
How it developed: Using federal grants to enhance the cybersecurity of the electric grid, EPB worked with the San Diego-based technology company Qubitekk to develop a network to share data and test applications among quantum nodes in Chattanooga.
Connections: EPB is using its fiber optic network to build the first commercial quantum network to help develop, test and share new quantum technologies. Quantum key distribution transmits information using entangled light in a way that makes any interception of the transmission obvious to the user.
EPB investment: EPB is investing $4.5 million to build the new quantum network and test nodes. The utility expects to recover its investment in five years through hourly fees paid by users to access the quantum network.
Applications: Quantum technologies allow for more advanced computing, communications and sensing solutions.
Market size: A new McKinsey study suggests the automotive, chemical, financial services and life sciences industries could gain up to $1.3 trillion in value by 2035.