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Engineers take a major step towards a quantum computer

03 February 2014

An important advance towards a quantum computer has been achieved by shrinking down key components and integrating them onto a silicon microchip.

Photo courtesy of the University of Bristol
Photo courtesy of the University of Bristol

Scientists and engineers from an international collaboration led by Dr Mark Thompson from the University of Bristol have, for the first time, generated and manipulated single particles of light (photons) on a silicon chip – a major step forward in the race to build a quantum computer.

Quantum computers and quantum technologies in general are widely anticipated as the next major technology advancement, and are poised to replace conventional information and computing devices in applications ranging from ultra-secure communications and high-precision sensing to immensely powerful computers. Quantum computers themselves will likely lead to breakthroughs in the design of new materials and in the discovery of new medical drugs.

Whilst still in their infancy, quantum technologies are making rapid process, and a revolutionary new approach pioneered by the University of Bristol is exploiting state-of-the-art engineering processes and principles to make leaps and bounds in a field previously dominated by scientists.

While previous attempts have required external light sources to generate the photons, this new chip integrates components that can generate photons inside the chip.

Image courtesy of the University of Bristol
Image courtesy of the University of Bristol

“We were surprised by how well the integrated sources performed together,” admits Joshua Silverstone, lead author of a paper on the research published in Nature Photonics. “They produced high-quality identical photons in a reproducible way, confirming that we could one day manufacture a silicon chip with hundreds of similar sources on it, all working together. This could eventually lead to an optical quantum computer capable of performing enormously complex calculations.”

“Single-photon detectors, sources and circuits have all been developed separately in silicon but putting them all together and integrating them on a chip is a huge challenge," says Dr Thompson. "Our device is the most functionally complex photonic quantum circuit to date, and was fabricated by Toshiba using exactly the same manufacturing techniques used to make conventional electronic devices. We can generate and manipulate quantum entanglement all within a single mm-sized micro-chip.”

The group, which, includes researchers from Toshiba Corporation (Japan), Stanford University (US), University of Glasgow (UK) and TU Delft (The Netherlands), now plans to integrate the remaining necessary components onto a chip, and show that large-scale quantum devices using photons are possible.

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