Researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of quantum technology that has the potential to leave today’s supercomputers in the dust, opening the door to advances in fields such as medicine, chemistry, cybersecurity and others that were out of reach.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia said they had found a way to create quantum computing processors in silicon chips.
Lead researcher Stephanie Simmons said she illuminated tiny imperfections on the silicon chips with intense beams of light. Defects in silicon chips act as an information carrier, she said. While the rest of the chip transmits light, the small defect reflects it and turns into a messenger, she said.
There are many natural imperfections in silicon. Some of these imperfections can act as quantum bits, or qubits. Scientists call these types of imperfections spin qubits. Previous research has shown that silicon can produce some of the most stable and durable qubits in the industry.
“These findings open up immediate opportunities to build silicon-integrated telecom-band quantum information networks,” the study says.
Simmons, who holds the university’s Canada Research Chair in Quantum Silicon Technologies, said the main challenge in quantum computing is being able to send information to and from qubits.
“People have worked with spin qubits, or defects, in silicon before,” Simmons said. “And people have worked with photon qubits in silicon before. But no one brought them together like that.
Lead author Daniel Higginbottom called the breakthrough “immediately promising” because researchers have achieved what was thought impossible by combining two known but parallel fields.
Defects in silicon were widely studied from the 1970s to the 1990s, while quantum physics has been researched for decades, said Higginbottom, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the university’s physics department.
“For a very long time, people didn’t see any potential for optical technology in silicon defects. But we really were the first to revisit them and found something with applications in quantum technology that is certainly remarkable.
Although in its infancy, Simmons said quantum computing is the rock ‘n’ roll future of computers that can solve anything from simple algebra problems to complex pharmaceutical equations or formulas that unravel the deep mysteries of space.
“We are going to be limited by our imagination at this point. What will really take off is really well outside of our predictive abilities as humans.
The advantage of using silicon chips is that they are widely available, understood and have a giant manufacturing base, she said.
“We can really make it work and we should be able to move faster and hopefully generalize that capability much faster.”
Some physicists predict quantum computers will become mainstream in about two decades, though Simmons said she thinks it will be much sooner.
In the 1950s, people thought the technology behind transistors was going to be used primarily for hearing aids, she said. No one predicted then that the physics behind a transistor could be applied to Facebook or Google, she added.
“So we’ll have to see how quantum technology evolves over decades in terms of what applications really resonate with the public,” she said. “But there will be a lot because people are creative, and these are basically very powerful tools that we unlock.”
—Hina Alam, The Canadian Press
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