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The race to quantum technologies

01 March 2016

A new £3m grant has been awarded to the University of Surrey to provide the answer to the challenge of enabling solid state quantum technologies, leading to quantum computers.

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Quantum computers rely on the production and control of 'qubits'. These qubits are often single, isolated atoms placed within another highly pure material such as single phosphorus atoms in a silicon crystal, or single nitrogen atoms in a diamond (carbon) crystal. They can be connected together to act as miniscule super-processors of unprecedented flexibility. However, these processors built from many qubits connected together are extremely difficult to construct.

“We’ve named this new project ‘SIMPLE’ (Single Ion Multispecies Positioning at Low Energy) but this challenge is anything but simple. Enabling a viable quantum computer is one of the most difficult challenges faced by physicists, but one of the most important,” commented Professor Richard Curry, of the University of Surrey.

Quantum technologies are the focus of a £270m investment by the UK government and are expected to revolutionise the way we use, build and understand computers. From providing the capability to sense our world with unparalleled precision to the modelling and design of highly complex systems, the applications of this technology will transform areas as diverse as business, energy, communications, security and healthcare.

SIMPLE will provide an underpinning capability, working with UK and international leaders in quantum technologies, including strategic partner the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), University College London (UCL), the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Warwick and Cardiff, SIMPLE will also work with industry including Hitachi in order to place the UK at the forefront of quantum breakthroughs.

As part of the project, two unique facilities will be created. The SIMPLE implantation tool will enable positioning of large arrays of any desired single atom qubits into any solid material. It will be housed in the UK’s National Ion Beam Centre at the University of Surrey. The second, the SIMPLE imaging facility, will enable single atom dopants in silicon to be imaged for the first time.

“At the moment making arrays of single atoms can be a bit like herding cats,” explained Professor Richard Curry, of the University of Surrey. “Sometimes we think we put an atom somewhere and it turns out there are none there, and sometimes there are two or three! There is complete reliance on chance. We have to replace chance with control. That is what the SIMPLE facility will enable. Once we have herded these atoms we then need to check that the result is as expected. To do this, we will build a new kind of microscope for looking at the atoms with unprecedented precision and care. The microscope will be housed with our partners NPL, who bring a wealth of expertise in detection and measurement.”

“At the moment alternative solutions to creating a quantum computer are based on football-pitch-sized warehouses, equipped with many super-freezers connected to form interacting qubit processors. What we are proposing is a tool that will in principle allow us to place many, many qubits on a pin-head. The scale of this achievement will be massive, and importantly it will come from the UK.”

The new SIMPLE facility, scheduled to open in summer 2017 will join Surrey’s Hyper Terahertz Facility, the only facility of its kind in the world and the first joint laboratory to be opened under a strategic partnership signed between NPL and the University of Surrey.

The award of the grant was announced by Universities and Science minister Jo Johnson.

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