Light Bulbs Could Help Power Quantum Computers

Brighter data processing

  • Researchers say they have taken another step towards building a new kind of computer that uses quantum bits or qubits. 
  • The quantum computer would be constructed by spraying electrons from a light bulb’s filament. 
  • Experts say the new technique is promising, but there’s a lot of work to be done before quantum computers are ready for your desktop.
Quantum computer CPU and Computer chip concept Central Computer Processor

Olemedia / Getty Images

A simple light bulb could be the key to making practical quantum computers a reality, opening the possibility for vastly more powerful data-crunching abilities. 

Scientists from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory say they have taken another step towards building a new kind of computer that uses quantum bits, or qubits. The technique involves spraying electrons from a light bulb’s filament, according to a recent paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.  

Michael Nizich, a computer science professor at New York Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the paper, called the Argonne research "quite important" in an email interview with Lifewire. 

"It may lay the groundwork for a truly affordable distribution of functional quantum processors into a variety of computing devices leading to the next generation of potentially limitless computer processors," he added. 

Better Bits

Quantum computers hold the promise of revolutionizing computing. Unlike ordinary binary computing, qubits add a third unit of information to the computing process—rather than 1-0—and it’s 1-0-1/0, TackleAI CEO Sergio Suarez Jr told Lifewire via email. The addition of the third unit, the simultaneous 1 and 0, is called superposition, meaning it is both 0 and 1 and all points in between. 

"This superposition of qubits allows quantum computers to work on a million calculations at once and makes quantum computing exponentially faster and more powerful than a traditional computer," Suarez Jr said. 

The Argonne team focused on using a single electron as a qubit. Heating a light bulb filament emits a stream of electrons, but qubits are very sensitive to disturbances from the surrounding environment. To get around this problem, the researchers trapped an electron on an ultrapure solid neon surface in a vacuum.​

A new qubit platform: Electrons from a heated light filament (top) land on solid neon (red block),

Dafei Jin / Argonne National Laboratory

"With this platform, we achieved, for the first time ever, strong coupling between a single electron in a near-vacuum environment and a single microwave photon in the resonator," Xianjing Zhou, the first author of the paper, said in a news release. ​"This opens up the possibility to use microwave photons to control each electron qubit and link many of them in a quantum processor."

Scott Buchholz, the emerging technology leader and chief technical officer for Government & Public Services at Deloitte Consulting, told Lifewire in an email that most approaches to creating qubits are based on using individual atoms or photons, whereas Argonne is working on a system that utilizes electrons.  

"There are more than half a dozen different approaches that organizations are exploring to create qubits, each with its own set of pros, cons, and considerations," Buchholz said. "For example, some of the approaches may enable faster qubit to qubit connections, but are more susceptible to noise and errors."

Faster Processors

In quantum computing, the qubit is the concept that, unlike a traditional bit, can be both a 0 and a 1 at the same time by measuring what is known as spin, Nizich explained. This process has been extremely difficult to measure and control, "but the possibility of this potentially unlimited state means a complete rethinking of the traditional model," he added. 

Companies including IBM and Google have existing systems with up to 100 qubits of processing power. But, said Nizich, the approaches by these tech giants may not be easily transferable to the future hopes of having quantum processors in phones, laptops, cars, and even household appliances. 

"This is why Argonne's discoveries are so important as they may hold the key to this technology becoming more accessible to a larger variety of researchers, [thereby] leading to more discoveries," Nizich said. "It may also mean that the manufacturing of quantum processors at a large scale may be possible in the future."

Despite the optimistic results from Argonne scientists, experts warn that practical quantum computers are still not ready to land on your desk. Benjamin Bloom, founder of quantum computing company Atom Computing, pointed out to Lifewire in an email that the biggest challenge in building a quantum computer is scaling your qubit system to reach the hundreds of thousands to million qubits that are likely necessary to building a useful quantum computer. 

Mark Mattingley-Scott, a managing director for quantum computing company Quantum Brilliance, said via email that the new technology will accelerate efforts to create high performance cloud based quantum computers. But, he added, challenges remain to make the process small enough to fit into everyday computers. 

"There is a long way to go before solid neon qubits are available on an accelerator card in your PC," he said.

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