Scientists Are One Step Closer to a Fully Functioning Quantum Computer

The researchers fabricate the device by patterning and depositing metal gates on a chip. (Image: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)
The researchers fabricate the device by patterning and depositing metal gates on a chip. (Image: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Quantum computing has the potential to revolutionize technology, medicine, and science by providing faster and more efficient processors, sensors, and communication devices. But transferring information and correcting errors within a quantum system remains a challenge to making effective quantum computers.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, researchers from Purdue University and the University of Rochester, including John Nichol, an assistant professor of physics, and Rochester Ph.D. students Yadav P. Kandel and Haifeng Qiao, demonstrate their method of relaying information by transferring the state of electrons.

John Nichol and PhD students Yadav Kandel, left, and Haifeng Qiao, right, demonstrated a way to manipulate electrons and transmit information quantum-mechanically, bringing scientists one step closer to creating a fully functional quantum computer. Quantum computers will be able to perform complex calculations, factor extremely large numbers, and simulate the behaviors of atoms and particles at levels that classical computers cannot. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

John Nichol and Ph.D. students Yadav Kandel, left, and Haifeng Qiao, right, demonstrated a way to manipulate electrons and transmit information quantum-mechanically, bringing scientists one step closer to creating a fully functional quantum computer. Quantum computers will be able to perform complex calculations, factor extremely large numbers, and simulate the behaviors of atoms and particles at levels that classical computers cannot. (Image: University of Rochester, J. Adam Fenster)

The research brings scientists one step closer to creating fully functional quantum computers and is the latest example of  Rochester’s initiative to better understand quantum behavior and develop novel quantum systems. The University recently received a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy to explore quantum materials.

Quantum computers

A quantum computer operates on the principles of quantum mechanics, a unique set of rules that govern at the extremely small scale of atoms and subatomic particles. When dealing with particles at these scales, many of the rules that govern classical physics no longer apply and quantum effects emerge; a quantum computer is able to perform complex calculations, factor extremely large numbers, and simulate the behaviors of atoms and particles at levels that classical computers cannot.

PhD student Yadav Kandel uses an Arbitrary Waveform Generator to manipulate qubits. // Assistant professor of physics John M. Nichol is photographed in his lab in Bausch & Lomb Hall along with PhD students Yadav Kandel and Haifeng Qiao September 10, 2019. The group has a paper that will be published in Nature later this month. Nichol's research brings scientists one step closer to creating a fully functional quantum computer, a type of computer that operates on the principles of quantum mechanics. Quantum computers will be able to perform complex calculations, factor extremely large numbers, and simulate the behaviors of atoms and particles at levels that classical computers (like the laptops and desktop computers we use in our everyday lives) cannot. This could lead to new energy sources, new drug therapies, faster database searches, and code-breaking techniques. One of the challenges to creating an efficient quantum computer is figuring out how to transfer information and correct errors within a quantum system. This is where Nichol's new research comes in. Nichol and his colleagues at Purdue University demonstrated a way to transfer the quantum state of one electron to another, without moving the electrons themselves. This is an important step in showing how information can be transmitted quantum-mechanically. // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

Ph.D. student Yadav Kandel uses an Arbitrary Waveform Generator to manipulate qubits.
(Image: J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

Quantum computers have the potential to provide more insight into principles of physics and chemistry by simulating the behavior of matter at unusual conditions at the molecular level. These simulations could be useful in developing new energy sources and studying the conditions of planets and galaxies or comparing compounds that could lead to new drug therapies. Nichol said:

Quantum computers could also open doors for faster database searches and cryptography.

Bits vs Qubits

A regular computer consists of billions of transistors, called bits. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are based on quantum bits, also known as qubits, which can be made from a single electron. Unlike ordinary transistors, which can be either “0” or “1,” qubits can be both “0” and “1” at the same time.

Thin aluminum wires connect the surface of a quantum processor semiconductor chip to pads on a circuit board. The researchers fabricate the device by patterning and depositing metal gates on a chip. The metal gates are designed to trap individual electrons in the semiconductor. The researchers send electrical signals to the device via the aluminum wires, changing the voltage on the metal gates to control the electrons. They also receive electrical signals from the device to help monitor the electrons’ behavior. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Thin aluminum wires connect the surface of a quantum processor semiconductor chip to pads on a circuit board. The researchers fabricate the device by patterning and depositing metal gates on a chip. The metal gates are designed to trap individual electrons in the semiconductor. The researchers send electrical signals to the device via the aluminum wires, changing the voltage on the metal gates to control the electrons. They also receive electrical signals from the device to help monitor the electrons’ behavior. (Image: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The ability for individual qubits to occupy these “superposition states,” where they are simultaneously in multiple states, underlies the great potential of quantum computers. Just like ordinary computers, however, quantum computers need a way to transfer information between qubits, and this presents a major experimental challenge. Nichol said:

All computers, including both regular and quantum computers and devices like smartphones, also have to perform error correction. A regular computer contains copies of bits so if one of the bits goes bad, “the rest are just going to take a majority vote” and fix the error.

However, quantum bits cannot be copied. Nichol says:

Manipulating electrons

Quantum error correction requires that individual qubits interact with many other qubits. This can be difficult because an individual electron is like a bar magnet with a north pole and a south pole that can point either up or down.

Doctoral student Haifeng Qiao uses a wire bonder to make electrical contact between the circuit board and the experimental device. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Doctoral student Haifeng Qiao uses a wire bonder to make electrical contact between the circuit board and the experimental device. (Image: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The direction of the pole — whether the north pole is pointing up or down, for instance — is known as the electron’s magnetic moment or quantum state. If certain kinds of particles have the same magnetic moment, they cannot be in the same place at the same time. That is, two electrons in the same quantum state cannot sit on top of each other. Nichol said:

If two electrons are in opposite states, they can sit on top of each other. A surprising consequence of this is that if the electrons are close enough, their states will swap back and forth in time.

To force this phenomenon, Nichol and his colleagues cooled down a semiconductor chip to extremely low temperatures. Using quantum dots — nanoscale semiconductors — they trapped four electrons in a row, then moved the electrons so they came in contact and their states switched.

One step closer

Transmitting the state of an electron back and forth across an array of qubits, without moving the position of electrons, provides a striking example of the possibilities allowed by quantum physics for information science. Michael Manfra, a professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University, said:

Nichol likens this to the steps that led from the first computing devices to today’s computers. That said, will we all someday have quantum computers to replace our desktop computers?

Provided by: Lindsey Valich, University of Rochester [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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