Quantum computers are thought to be the next big step in computing technology. They would have enough power to tackle large-scale problems including modeling viruses like COVID-19, the creation of new medicines, complex cryptography, and the development of catalysts to reduce energy consumption. Unfortunately, this technology is considered to be more than a decade from practical use. However, a major breakthrough has been made that could bring quantum computing within reach.
A group of researchers led by Professor Andrew Dzurak at UNSW Sydney has shown that a silicon-based qubit can operate at higher temperatures than normal. They used this breakthrough to design a new type of quantum chip that is much easier to work with. Their proof of concept was published recently in Nature and has most likely broken through one of the toughest roadblocks in quantum computing.
What is a Qubit?
Qubits are the fundamental units of quantum computing. Just like a regular bit in your home computer, the qubit can represent a 0 or a 1 and when working together they form a binary code that is the basis for computer processing. The qubit is more advanced because it can also manifest both the 1 and 0 states at the same time. This is known as a “superposition” and is the basis for quantum computing.
It may not sound like much but when millions of these qubits are working together they can tackle problems that no supercomputer on the planet can handle.
Regular Qubits vs Silicon Qubits
Currently, regular qubits have to be kept at a temperature that is just fractions of a degree over absolute zero, which is colder than deep space. In order to maintain that temperature, top of the line refrigeration technology has to be used. This costs millions of dollars and takes a large amount of space. A full-scale quantum computer using regular qubits would require an entire building just to store the cooling units.
Dr. Dzurak’s team has designed a chip that uses silicon-based qubits that can operate at a temperature of about 1.5 Kelvin. Which is still really cold but would only require thousands of dollars worth of refrigeration rather than millions.
INFOGRAPHIC – showing the difference between the two
The good news does not stop there. The silicon qubit’s ability to operate at higher temperatures actually helps jump a second hurdle. The use of regular computer chips next to quantum chips has always been an issue because they generate enough heat to instantly overheat regular qubits.
Unfortunately, regular computer chips are required to control the read and write operations of the quantum chips. However, we can pull enough heat away from them that they will not interfere with silicon qubits. This small difference makes the construction of a quantum computer possible.
These breakthroughs are ahead of their time and have brought quantum computing technology much closer. There are still more than a few challenges to be met but there is no reason to think the technology is still a decade away.