One Small Step for Electrons, One Giant Leap for Quantum Computers


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Yadav Kandel, a physics PhD student in assistant professor John Nichol’s lab, uses an arbitrary waveform generator to manipulate qubits. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

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. 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.

“A quantum computer needs to have many qubits, and they’re really difficult to make and operate,” Nichol says. “The state-of-the art right now is doing something with only a few qubits, so we’re still a long ways away from realizing the full potential of quantum computers.”

All computers, including both regular and quantum computers and devices like smart phones, 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, “so you have to be very clever about how you correct for errors. What we’re doing here is one step in that direction.”

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. 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.

“This is one of the main reasons something like a penny, which is made out of metal, doesn’t collapse on itself,” Nichol says. “The electrons are pushing themselves apart because they cannot be in the same place at the same time.”

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.

 “If you have one electron that’s up and another electron that’s down and you push them together for just the right amount of time, they will swap,” Nichol says. “They did not switch places, but their states switched.”

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.

“There’s an easy way to switch the state between two neighboring electrons, but doing it over long distances—in our case, it’s four electrons—requires a lot of control and technical skill,” Nichol says. “Our research shows this is now a viable approach to send information over long distances.”

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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)

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.

“This experiment demonstrates that information in quantum states can be transferred without actually transferring the individual electron spins down the chain,” says Michael Manfra, a professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University. “It is an important step for showing how information can be transmitted quantum-mechanically—in manners quite different than our classical intuition would lead us to believe.”

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? “If you had asked that question of IBM in the 1960s, they probably would’ve said no, there’s no way that’s going to happen,” Nichol says. “That’s my reaction now. But, who knows?”

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