This one centimeter-sized silicon chip can help to cool down quantum bits.
Quantum computing is a revolutionary technology, but the obstacles to creating viable quantum computers remain significant.
Chipping away at the task is a team of Finnish researchers, who have found a way to cool down quantum bits, or qubits, using a quantum-circuit refrigerator.
"To my understanding, no one else has done a standalone component that can refrigerate a quantum system," Mikko Mttnen, quantum physicist and research team leader at Aalto University, tells ZDNet.
The significance of this development comes down to the fickle nature of qubits. Unlike in traditional computing, where electronic bits are set to a value of zero or one, qubits can simultaneously hold values of zero, one, or both. Consequently, they can carry out more computations in parallel and solve complex big-data problems much faster than today's systems.
But qubits are very sensitive to external perturbations and need to be well isolated, and that isolation can in turn cause them to heat up and result in calculation errors.
Furthermore, every qubit needs to be reset to its low-temperature ground state at the beginning of a computation. If qubits get too hot, they keep switching between different states.
This is where the cooling mechanism of the Finnish research team comes in. Their system works by tunneling single electrons through a 2nm-thick insulator.
By giving the electrons slightly less energy than that required for tunneling, they instead capture the missing energy from the nearby quantum device, which in turn loses energy and cools down.
This approach means most electrical quantum devices, including computers, could be initialised quickly and made more reliable.
So far, the system has been tested by postdoctoral researcher Kuan Yan Tan with qubit-like superconducting resonators, with the results published in scientific journal Nature Communications.
"In the experiments we did with the resonator, the temperature of the resonator we achieved was too high for quantum computer operations. So we have to show we can cool down to even lower temperatures," Mttnen explains.
In addition to this goal, the next steps for the team will be to test the system with actual quantum bits and make its on-off switch faster.
Mttnen estimates that viable practical applications could be possible in a few years' time, but says it is too early to speculate when these applications could turn into commercial products.
Mttnen's team is only one of the many companies and research organisations working on quantum computing, including tech giants Google, IBM and Microsoft. Despite all these efforts, Mttnen remains cautious when pressed about when the world will finally see the first commercial quantum computer.
"It's almost impossible at this stage to say when. But what I can say is it's more likely we will get there at some point than that we don't," Mttnen says.
US Energy Department lab bolsters quantum computing resources
Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are getting cloud access to a D-Wave 2000Q system, allowing them to explore hybrid computing architectures.
Microsoft deepens University of Sydney quantum research partnership
Microsoft has beefed up its efforts to commercialise quantum computing, giving the university funding for new equipment, staff, and talent, as researchers delve deeper into the underlying technology.
Accenture, 1QBit partner for drug discovery through quantum computing
Accenture and quantum computing startup 1QBit have partnered with pharmaceutical giant Biogen to develop a quantum-enabled molecular comparison application for drug discovery.
IBM aims to commercialize quantum computing, launches API, SDK and sees Q systems in next few years
IBM put some more meat on its roadmap and plans to commercialize quantum computing for enterprises. For now, developers will get APIs and a software developer kit to play with qubits.
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