Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t exactly sure how quantum physics works, but he thinks a research center investigating it might be as big a deal for Chicago’s economy as the city’s decision to annex O’Hare Airport.

“People will look back at this day as a milestone that changed the direction not only of the city, not only of the state, not only of the country, but of the prospects of the greater South Side of Chicago,” Emanuel said Tuesday at the University of Chicago.

Administrators announced the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will join the Hyde Park school’s efforts in quantum technology with the Fermi and Argonne National Laboratories as part of the “Chicago Quantum Exchange,” based near the University of Chicago.

Quantum physicists study very small particles — smaller than an atom — and their unusual qualities and uncertain states. In quantum computing, for instance, engineers hope to store information not in bits  in 1’s and 0’s  but in more-information rich “qubits.”

It’s a heady topic, on the cutting-edge of physics. But the field could have real-world implications, allowing the transmission of unhackable coded messages, medical imaging at an unprecedented resolution, and faster and more efficient computers, according to David Aswchalom, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Molecular Engineering.

Emanuel literally threw up his hands about the science behind the technology at the press conference. He was confident, nonetheless, that the combined efforts of the universities and the labs will anchor the emerging field in Chicago.

A participant in the project more familiar with the underlying science Fermi Lab Deputy Director Joe Lykken shared Emanuel’s enthusiasm.

“There’s a lot of hype out there, but I think it is a fair analogy to say this is like the World Wide Web when there were only three websites,” Lykken said. “We really are at the beginning of something that we think is going to be transformative, not just for science but for the whole world.”