Microsoft and USyd claim invention of key quantum computing component

A team from the university has developed a microcircuit based on previously published research, claiming it is the key component of quantum computing.

Prototype microwave circulator next to an Australian five cent piece.

Image: Steven Waddy/University of Sydney

A team at the University of Sydney (USyd) working with Microsoft, alongside Stanford University in the US, has announced the development of a miniaturised component touted as essential for the scale-up of quantum computing.

According to the university, the work represents the first practical application of a new phase of matter that was first discovered in 2006, "topological insulators", which are materials that operate as insulators in the bulk of their structures, but have surfaces that act as conductors.

"Manipulation of these materials provide a pathway to construct the circuitry needed for the interaction between quantum and classical systems," explained USyd in a statement.

As a result, USyd said they are vital for building a practical quantum computer.

The Sydney team developed a microwave circulator, which acts like a traffic roundabout by ensuring that electrical signals only propagate in one direction, clockwise or anti-clockwise, as required.

"Similar devices are found in mobile phone base-stations and radar systems, and will be required in large quantities in the construction of quantum computers," the university added.

Usyd explained that previously, a major limitation was that typical circulators are bulky objects the size of a human hand. However, with its team miniaturising the common circulator device by a factor of 1,000, USyd believes the miniaturisation paves the way for many circulators to be integrated on a chip and manufactured in the large quantities that will be needed to build quantum computers.

The miniaturisation has been achieved by exploiting the properties of topological insulators to slow the speed of light in the material.

"It is not just about qubits, the fundamental building blocks for quantum machines. Building a large-scale quantum computer will also need a revolution in classical computing and device engineering," professor David Reilly, leader of the Sydney team, said.

"Even if we had millions of qubits today, it is not clear that we have the classical technology to control them.

"Realising a scaled-up quantum computer will require the invention of new devices and techniques at the quantum-classical interface."

Although a practical quantum computer is still some years away, the compact circulators are touted for use in a variety of quantum hardware platforms irrespective of the particular quantum system used.

Professor Reilly is director of the University of Sydney's Microsoft Quantum Laboratory, with the multimillion dollar partnership part of a global effort by Microsoft to build the world's first practical quantum computer.

The partnership is housed in the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, Station Q, which at a cost of AU$150 million will see Microsoft provide equipment, allow for the recruitment of new staff, and help build scientific and engineering talent, in addition to helping researchers progress their work in developing quantum technologies.

The focus of Reilly and his team at Station Q Sydney is to bring quantum computing out of the laboratory and into the real world where it can have genuine impact.

Reilly's team has already demonstrated how spin-off quantum technologies can be used in the near-future to help detect and track early-stage cancers using the quantum properties of nanodiamonds. Scientists at the university have also developed a machine learning technique to predict the demise of quantum computing systems in a bid to keep quantum bits (qubits) from breaking.

Quantum computing is expected to revolutionise the world, with Australia well-placed to be the first across the quantum finish line.

Speaking at the recent D61+ Live conference in Melbourne, professor Michelle Simmons, director at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T) at the University of New South Wales, said it's predicted 40 percent of all industry in Australia will be impacted by quantum computing.

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