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Silicon based optical chip lights up the race for a quantum computer

14 August 2015

Researchers have delivered a step change for experiments with photons, creating an optical chip that can process photons in an infinite number of ways.

The silicon based quantum optics lab-on-a-chip (photo: University of Bristol)

Described as a major step forward in creating a quantum computer, the fully reprogrammable chip brings together a multitude of existing quantum experiments and, according to the researchers, can realise a plethora of future protocols that have not even been conceived yet. The work is published today (Friday, 14 August] in the journal Science.

A major barrier in testing new theories for quantum science and quantum computing is the time and resources needed to build new experiments, which are typically extremely demanding due to the notoriously fragile nature of quantum systems. This new work by researchers from the University of Bristol and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) in Japan, represents a step change for experiments with photons.

“A whole field of research has essentially been put onto a single optical chip that is easily controlled," says Dr Anthony Laing, who led the project. "The implications of the work go beyond the huge resource savings. Now anybody can run their own experiments with photons, much like they operate any other piece of software on a computer. They no longer need to convince a physicist to devote many months of their life to painstakingly build and conduct a new experiment.”

The team demonstrated the chip’s unique capabilities by re-programming it to rapidly perform a number of different experiments, each of which would previously have taken many months to build.

“Once we wrote the code for each circuit, it took seconds to re-programme the chip, and milliseconds for the chip to switch to the new experiment," adds co-researcher, Bristol PhD student Jacques Carolan. "We carried out a year’s worth of experiments in a matter of hours. What we’re really excited about is using these chips to discover new science that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The University of Bristol's pioneering ‘Quantum in the Cloud’ is the first and only service to make a quantum processor publicly accessible and plans to add more chips like this one to the service so others can discover the quantum world for themselves.

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