Physicists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have designed and built an electromagnetic trap for ions that could be mass produced to potentially make quantum computers large enough for practical use.
The new trap may help scientists surmount what is currently the most significant barrier to building a working quantum computer, namely scaling up components and processes that have been successfully demonstrated individually.
Quantum computers would exploit the unusual behavior of the smallest particles of matter and light. Their theoretical ability to perform vast numbers of operations simultaneously has the potential to solve certain problems, such as breaking data encryption codes or searching large databases, far faster than conventional computers.
Ions are promising candidates for use as quantum bits (qubits) in quantum computers. The NIST team, one of 18 research groups worldwide experimenting with ion qubits, previously demonstrated at a rudimentary level all the basic building blocks for a quantum computer, including key processes such as error correction, and also proposed a large-scale architecture.
The new NIST trap is the first functional ion trap in which all electrodes are arranged in one horizontal layer, a “chip-like” geometry that is much easier to manufacture than previous ion traps with two or three layers of electrodes. The new trap, which has gold electrodes that confine ions about 40 micrometers above the electrodes, was constructed using standard microfabrication techniques.
NIST scientists report that their single-layer device can trap a dozen magnesium ions without generating too much heat from electrode voltage fluctuations—also an important factor, because heating has limited the prospects for previous small traps.
Microscale traps are desirable because the smaller the trap, the faster the future computer. Work is continuing at NIST and at collaborating industrial and federal labs to build single-layer traps with more complex structures in which perhaps 10 to 15 ions eventually could be manipulated with lasers to carry out logic operations.