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Telescope microchip could aid quantum research

A research collaboration has come up with a new chip design that may be integrated into the world's largest radio telescope.
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Written by Alex Serpo on

A research collaboration between Australia's La Trobe University's Center for Technology Infusion, Peregrine Semiconductor Australia and the CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility have come up with a new chip design they hope will be integrated into the world's largest radio telescope.

The chip is currently undergoing testing at the CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility facilities at Marsfield, in the hope of becoming part of the Square Kilometre Array, a AU$1.8 billion (US$1.57 billion) science project that will be the world's first global radio telescope.

With construction scheduled to begin in 2011, the Square Kilometer Array is a telescope designed to pick up radio signals from space. With a total receiver area of one square kilometer, it will easily be the most sensitive radio telescope ever built.

The telescope was designed to look for traces of the big bang, pulsars, magnetic fields, black holes, dark matter and even extraterrestrial life.

The chip was specifically designed to be fitted to the front end of hundreds of super-sensitive radio receiver circuits that amplify cosmic signals. According to Professor Jack Singh, Director of La Trobe University's Center for Technology Infusion, designing the chip was a considerable engineering challenge.

"The big challenge [was] to overcome the inherent noise in an integrated circuit, and to produce an amplifier with the lowest noise possible, with broad frequency band and high gain," he said.

In order to overcome this, the La Trobe research team used the Ultra CMOS process, which involves using very high-linearity, high-speed transistors. The design process took three months, after which the chip was fabricated at Peregrine's foundries in Australia and the United States.

According to Andrew Brawley of Peregrine Semiconductor Australia, the chip will not only serve as a prototype for developing a world-leading integrated receiver design, but may also aid in quantum computer research due to its ability to operate at milli-Kelvin temperatures.

Current silicon-based quantum computer technologies are designed to integrate with existing silicon chips, but such quantum circuits operate at temperatures as low as a fraction of a Kelvin, colder than deep space. This is because such quantum circuits "decohere", with even the slightest piece of electromagnetic or thermal noise.

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