Saturday science subject: Quantum computing leap

— 12:00 PM on July 15, 2006

Despite its apparent potential, quantum computing still seems to have a long way to go before ending up in desktop computers. A new breakthrough could accelerate this process, however. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have found a new method to build ion traps that may be both scalable and easy to mass-produce. Ion traps, the New Scientist says, are the best method to make qubits—bits that can share multiple states and form the basis for quantum computing. They function by catching super-cooled ions in an electric field and manipulating them with lasers. Conventional ion traps are three-dimensional, but the NIST researchers have managed to produce two-dimensional ones instead:

Ion traps usually have four rod-shaped electrodes arranged in a 3D cage. They emit oscillating electric fields to trap ions. Wineland and colleagues instead made the electrodes into flat strips lying next to each other on a surface. The gold electrodes were deposited onto a quartz chip and the surrounding connections and circuitry were etched onto the surface using photolithography.

"The advantage of this is one much appreciated by the electronics industry," Wineland told New Scientist. "You can just as easily make a thousand as make one." Many traps could be lined up together to make a quantum chip.

While this approach holds promise, the NIST research team's 2D ion trap isn't ready to hit mass-production quite yet. It uses magnesium ions, which are supposedly not ideal for qubit manipulation with lasers. Also, according to Sussex University Physics Lecturer Dr. Winfried Hensinger, interfacing lasers with 2D ion traps could be more difficult than with 3D ones. Nevertheless, the New Scientist says Dr. David Wineland, who spearheads the NIST team, is "confident that 2D qubits can be made."
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