Rice University physicists have created a tiny "electron superhighway" that could one day be useful for building a quantum computer, a new type of computer that will use quantum particles in place of the digital transistors found in today's microchips.
In a recent paper in Physical Review Letters, Rice physicists Rui-Rui Du and Ivan Knez describe a new method for making a tiny device called a "quantum spin Hall topological insulator." The device, which acts as an electron superhighway, is one of the building blocks needed to create quantum particles that store and manipulate data.
Today's computers use binary bits of data that are either ones or zeros. Quantum computers would use quantum bits, or "qubits," which can be both ones and zeros at the same time, thanks to the quirks of quantum mechanics.
This quirk gives quantum computers a huge edge in performing particular types of calculations, said Du, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice. For example, intense computing tasks like code-breaking, climate modeling and biomedical simulation could be completed thousands of times faster with quantum computers.
"In principle, we don't need many qubits to create a powerful computer," he said. "In terms of information density, a silicon microprocessor with 1 billion transistors would be roughly equal to a quantum processor with 30 qubits."
In the race to build quantum computers, researchers are taking a number of approaches to creating qubits. Regardless of the approach, a common problem is making certain that information encoded into qubits isn't lost over time due to quantum fluctuations. This is known as "fault tolerance."