Diagram of new quantum chip

‘Flip-flop qubit’ could allow for mass manufacture of quantum computer chips

Image credit: University of New South Wales

Researchers at the University of New South Wales have developed an entirely new method for building quantum computers which could make the futuristic devices easier and cheaper to produce at scale.

Quantum computers have the potential to provide unprecedented computing power by harnessing the common sense-defying properties of subatomic particles. At such a small scale, these particles can exist in more than one state at once (superposition) and form pairs which interact as part of a single quantum system (entanglement).

While a classical computer has a memory composed of bits, a quantum computer uses quantum bits, or “qubits”. A single qubit can represent not just a 0 or 1 – as a traditional bit does – but also superpositions of 0 and 1.

A quantum computer could, in theory, reduce the time taken to processes complex computer simulations – such as of the evolution of the universe – from millions of years for classical computers to mere hours.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales have announced a new chip design, based on a new type of qubit, the “flip-flop qubit”.

While most qubits today are made from a single subatomic component of a phosphorus atom, the new qubit uses the nucleus and electron of a phosphorous atom to create a qubit inside a layer of silicon, which can interact at a distance through electric fields.

This design could help overcome two major limitations of existing quantum computer designs: the need for precise placement of atoms, and the difficulty of coupling atoms at a distance (leaving little space for hardware).

This means that the chips can be produced using the same technology as existing computer chips, and hence be mass manufactured, said Professor Andrea Mello, who led the project.

“This makes the building of a quantum computer much more feasible, since it is based on the same manufacturing technology as today’s computer industry,” he said.

Despite the enormous technical challenges that stand in the way of developing anything other than the most basic quantum computers, tech giants such as IBM and Google are in the process of developing the technology. IBM’s most advanced quantum computer has 16 qubits, and Google’s has nine, restricting the computers to basic calculations.

The university has supported the establishment of a company, Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd, which plans to build a 10 qubit prototype by 2022.

According to Professor Laszlo Kish, a physicist at Texas A&M University, it is too early to say for certain that the study is a breakthrough, “but it may be a step in the proper direction” in solving major obstacles to making quantum computing a reality.

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