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Aussie research is giving the computing world a quantum leap


Some innovations seem to be destined to change the world. A research team led by Australian engineers has recently made just such a technological advancement.

So what did the team do, exactly? Only create the first working quantum bit based on a single atom in silicon, opening the way to ultra-powerful quantum computers of the future.

In a landmark paper published in the journal Nature, the team describes how it was able to both read and write information using the spin, or magnetic orientation, of an electron bound to a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon chip.

“For the first time, we have demonstrated the ability to represent and manipulate data on the spin to form a quantum bit, or ‘qubit’,  the basic unit of data for a quantum computer,” says Scientia Professor Andrew Dzurak. “This really is the key advance towards realising a silicon quantum computer based on single atoms.”

Dr Andrea Morello and Professor Dzurak from the University of New South Wales’ School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications lead the techie-team of Einsteins. The team also includes researchers from the University of Melbourne and University College, London.

“This is a remarkable scientific achievement – governing nature at its most fundamental level – and has profound implications for quantum computing,” says Dzurak.

A Future-tastic Solution

Dr. Morello says that quantum computers promise to solve complex problems that are currently impossible on even the world’s largest supercomputers.

“These (problems) include data-intensive problems, such as cracking modern encryption codes, searching databases, and modelling biological molecules and drugs,” says Dr. Morello.

The new finding follows after a 2010 Nature article, in which the same UNSW group demonstrated the ability to read the state of an electron’s spin. Discovering how to write the spin state now completes the two-stage process required to operate a quantum bit. Got it?

The epic result was achieved by using a microwave field to gain unprecedented control over an electron bound to a single phosphorous atom, which was implanted next to a specially-designed silicon transistor. Professor David Jamieson, of the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics, led the team that precisely implanted the phosphorous atom into the silicon device.

Quantum of Silicon

Jared Pla, the lead author on the paper, says “We have been able to isolate, measure and control an electron belonging to a single atom, all using a device that was made in a very similar way to everyday silicon computer chips.”

Dr. Morello adds “This is the quantum equivalent of typing a number on your keyboard. This has never been done before in silicon, a material that offers the advantage of being well understood scientifically and more easily adopted by industry. Our technology is fundamentally the same as is already being used in countless everyday electronic devices, and that’s a trillion-dollar industry.”

The team’s next goal is to combine pairs of quantum bits to create a two-qubit logic gate – the basic processing unit of a quantum computer.

So for us Anthillians, it would seem that the big question is “When do we get to invest in all this quantum goodness?”