WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Crossing this bridge opens the door to turning your laptops and smartphones into ultra-powerful quantum computers.
Quantum computers will be amazingly powerful, running hundreds of millions times faster than today’s state of the art hardware, until at least DNA computers which could be the most powerful computers in the universe make an appearance, and albeit under specific conditions. But they have their limitations. Firstly, today’s quantum computers are huge and live in labs, and then they have to be kept at near sub zero temperatures in order to work. But what if we had a way to cram all that power into a regular laptop, a transparent laptop like in the movies which one day will be reality, or your smartphone?
Well, up until now that was thought impossible, but now two new studies have shown how quantum technologies can work with everyday electronics – specifically, transmitting quantum information using devices made from silicon carbide, a material which is already used everywhere from LED lights to telescopes.
Today’s quantum computers are, strictly speaking, just scaled-down, prototype versions of what we one day hope commercially available quantum computers can be. They require a lot of delicate instruments, exotic materials, careful engineering, and specific conditions in which to operate – you can’t just order a laptop version for your home.
What these new studies show is a potential way to bring parts of the quantum computing promise to the electronics that are already in use – although as ever in the quantum realm, there’s still a lot of uncertainty to overcome. But it’s a start.
“The ability to create and control high-performance quantum bits in commercial electronics was a surprise,” says molecular engineer David Awschalom, from the University of Chicago. “These discoveries have changed the way we think about developing quantum technologies – perhaps we can find a way to use today’s electronics to build quantum devices.”
The scientists were able to generate quantum states in silicon carbide that emitted single particles of light, with a wavelength near the telecommunications band. That means our current network infrastructure might not need too much tweaking to carry quantum information.
In the first study, the scientists created what they called a “quantum FM radio”, capable of sending quantum information across long distances with high levels of control.
For their second trick, the team used a basic electronics element called a diode to free a quantum signal of noise and make it almost perfectly stable – addressing one of the major problems in quantum computing at the moment.
The diode acts as a one-way switch for electrons excited by the lasers used in the course of quantum experiments, effectively removing the electrons from the system and making the environment much less noisy.
As promising as they are, these advances aren’t going to put a quantum laptop on your desk anytime soon but they do give scientists more hope that quantum computing through classical systems might one day become a reality.
In September we saw researchers creating something approaching a quantum computer which could operate at room temperature, and used modified versions of the components found in classic computers, so this is a research area that’s gaining momentum.
“This work brings us one step closer to the realisation of systems capable of storing and distributing quantum information across the world’s fibre-optic networks,” says Awschalom.
“Such quantum networks would bring about a novel class of technologies allowing for the creation of unhackable communication channels, the teleportation of single electron states and the realisation of a quantum internet.”