UNSW startup engineers world-first quantum processor

Researchers at the UNSW startup Silicon Quantum Computing have engineered a quantum processor at the atomic scale — a world-first in the race to build a quantum computer — in a significant milestone for the sector in Australia.

According to Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons, this will allow the industry to make bigger devices that can go beyond the current capabilities of a classical computer, with a commercial outcome a possibility in five years’ time.

Simmons, a former Australian of the Year, is the founder and lead researcher at Silicon Quantum Computing, which last week launched $130 million Series A capital raise with the aim of building a quantum computer in Australia. This latest breakthrough will serve as a crucial building block of a future quantum computer.

Silicon Quantum Computer previously raised $83 million in seed capital in 2017, which was led by UNSW Sydney, the Australian and NSW governments, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra.

The Series A funding will allow the startup to continue developing its technology and to build a 100 qubit quantum device by 2028.

“We’re near the limit of what classical computers can do, so it’s like stepping off the edge into the unknown,” she said in a statement.

“We should have some kind of commercial outcome from our technology five years from now.”

The technology, according to the statement, is also scalable as it uses fewer components in the circuit to control the basic bits of quantum information, or qubits, allowing for more complex and powerful quantum systems to be made.

“Most quantum computing architectures need almost double the number or more of the control systems to move the electrons in the qubit architecture,” Simmons said. “We only needed six metallic gates to control the electrons in our 10-dot system — in other words, we have fewer gates than there are active device components.”

This breakthrough would allow for greater computational power on a scale traditional computers cannot match. For example in 2019, Google conducted a calculation on quantum hardware that was completed in 200 seconds, when it would take a classical supercomputer around 10,000 years.

Quantum computers could also help solve complex problems which classical computers would fail to perform, as well as run complex simulations.

Quantum computers are, however, incredibly difficult to build. IBM’s Quantum System One, which is the first circuit-based commercial quantum computer, needs a very specific set of conditions to operate, including unique components, massive cooling systems and expansive technology to run at even a basic level.

The researchers have taken an approach mirroring the process that the classical computer industry has followed for decades. In classical computing, transistors are the building blocks that can be used to build integrated circuits, which are then used to populate circuit boards and processors. These are then used to build fully functional classical computers. Silicon Quantum Computing’s development is the equivalent of an integrated circuit for quantum computing and thus has significant commercial value.

The quantum processor is also highly miniaturized and this comes with the advantage of being able to operate at scales where quantum effects can be exploited or used to do computing.

“We’re going to be able to understand the world in a different way, addressing fundamental questions that we’ve never been able to solve before,” Simmons said.

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