Aussies make supercomputer breakthrough

By Crystal Ja/AAP with AG Staff 27 September 2010
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Quantum computers could change our lives and a new breakthrough takes them one step closer to mass production.

AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS SAY THEY are coming first in a global race to create a new breed of supercomputers set to transform the way we live.

“We expect quantum computers will be able to perform certain tasks much faster than normal computers, such as searching databases, modelling complex molecules or developing new drugs. They could also crack most modern forms of encryption,” says lead researcher Professor Andrew Dzurak at the University of Sydney. 

Fully functional quantum computers are still years away, but a group led by Dzurak have notched up an important win after 10 years of toil. For the first time, he and his colleagure have been able to read the ‘spin’ (magnetic orientation) of an individual electron in silicon – basically the way quantum computers are powered – using a ‘single electron reader’.

Silicon is important because it is the primary atom used in standard computers, meaning it will be much easier and simpler to mass produce.

A new type of internet

“After a decade of work trying to build this type of single atom qubit [quantum bit] device, this is a very special moment,” says Andrew. The results of the finding are published today in the journal Nature.

David Jamieson, a professor of physics at the University of Melbourne who was responsible for ensuring single atoms were in place during tests, says it is an exciting breakthrough.

“This opens the world of quantum technologies and allows us to do things that are either very difficult or impossible to do on a classical computer,” he says. “It will potentially be a new type of internet – quantum internet – where information is transmitted and stored in fundamentally new ways.”

Quantum computers may be able to crack big mathematical quandaries – suggesting big improvements in internet security – while database searching and scientific research are destined to get a boost.

David says quantum computing is more important than ever, given there is a limit to how small or how fast normal computers will be able to go. Quantum computers, first flagged about 40 years ago, signal a new shift in the industry.

Global race

“There’s a world-wide race at the moment,” adds David, while stressing that the technology is still very much in its infancy.

Searching long lists of information and finding prime factors of large numbers will be primary tasks for quantum computers, but David says he is most excited about its potential uses for understanding the Universe at the “quantum level” – well below the scale of a single atom.
“The whole world is exploring technologies to build quantum computers, and the hardest approach…is to implant single phosphorous ions in silicon, and then encode and manipulate information in the spin [orientation] of those ions,” comments Professor Andrew White, a physicist at the University of Queensland who was not involved in the research.

“The team have made the key advance of showing they can read information from these spins in a single fast measurement that faithfully transmits the information. This opens up the road the silicon quantum computing…Their success is the result of literally years of hard work from Australian scientists at the Universities of New South Wales and Melbourne, and it’s just wonderful.”