19 September 2012,
AUSTRALIAN researchers say the world's first quantum computer is just 5 to10 years away, after announcing a global breakthrough that makes manufacture of its memory building blocks possible.
A research team led by Australian engineers has created the first working "quantum bit" based on a single atom in silicon, invoking the same technological platform that forms the building blocks of modern day computers, laptops and phones.
It opens up the real prospects of new quantum computers performing calculations billions of times faster than now within a decade.
First proposed in 1982, the quantum computer has existed in theory only. Instead of using bits and bytes to store information in memory as conventional computers do, quantum computers harness the power of atoms to store vast quantities of data.
The result is an almost incomprehensively powerful computer capable of cracking virtually all high-level encryption codes, modelling atomic systems such as biological molecules and drugs for pharmaceutical use, and searching massive databases in cloud computing environments.
Landmark in quantum computing
Andrea Morello, program manager at the Centre for Quantum Computing and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales, said just three hundred quantum bits, or "qubits" were capable of storing a number greater than the number of particles in the universe.
In a landmark paper published today in the journal Nature, the research team describes how it was able to both read and write information using the spin, or magnetic orientation, of an electron bound to a single phosphorus atom which was implanted next to a specially-designed silicon transistor. (Video)
Dr Morello and Andrew Dzurak from the UNSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications lead the research team which includes researchers from the University of Melbourne and University College, London.
They already had found a way to read information stored at an atomic level by an electron that orbits a single phosphorous atom. Now they could write information to the qubit also.
"For the first time, we have demonstrated the ability to represent and manipulate data on the (electron) spin to form a quantum bit, or 'qubit', the basic unit of data for a quantum computer," Professor Dzurak said.
"This really is the key advance towards realising a silicon quantum computer based on single atoms."
Dr Morello told The Australian that the next tasks involved performing quantum computations, which was achievable in 1-2 years and transporting quantum information across chips, achievable in around 3-4 years.
He said quantum computers would not replace conventional devices but their powerful computational abilities could sort through data held in cloud computing centres incredibly quickly.
"This has never been done before in silicon, a material that offers the advantage of being well understood scientifically and more easily adopted by industry. Our technology is fundamentally the same as is already being used in countless everyday electronic devices, and that's a trillion-dollar industry," Dr Morello said.
NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner said the breakthrough was "a remarkable achievement by the UNSW team and another world first for NSW in this exciting field of scientific research".
"This latest news builds upon a decade of research excellence in NSW," Mr Stoner said.