Making the future: 'blue skies' research

A quantum leap forward

Developing the first large-scale, super-fast quantum computer

In their ground-breaking research, the Sussex Ion Quantum Technology Group is working towards the development of the world's first large-scale superfast quantum computer.

In a world of ever smaller and faster computers, one might wonder at the need to develop a quantum computer. But for EPSRC Fellow, Dr Winfried Hensinger, Reader in Quantum, Atomic and Optical Physics and head of the Ion Quantum Technology Group at Sussex, the long-term goal is to do exactly that and develop the world's first large-scale, super-fast quantum computer, which could provide unimaginably greater processing power than current classical computers, and revolutionise how we solve scientific problems.

Winfried Hensinger and his team

Winfried Hensinger and his team.

The group's major focus is on developing quantum technology, that is, building useful things using the seemingly esoteric principles of quantum physics. This includes working towards building a completely new type of computer that could solve, in a matter of minutes, mathematical problems that would take the world's current fastest supercomputers 10,000 years to achieve. The benefits of such immense processing power present potentially limitless opportunities for advancement in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and medicine. While the development of large-scale quantum computers may still take many years, an application that can be realised on shorter time scales might be in advancing our understanding of nature. Nature - that is, inorganic and organic processes that occur in the natural world on a small scale - evolves and behaves according to the principles of quantum physics. Thus, the development of quantum technology could allow the simulation of quantum systems to study natural phenomena, such as chemical or biochemical reactions or the behaviour of solids, enabling scientists to accurately predict the outcome.

A step closer to the supercomputer

In order to achieve these goals, the Ion Quantum Technology Group has been using a system where lasers are used to trap ions - or charged atoms - between two electrodes. The ions are then 'supercooled' to temperatures close to absolute zero (-273 °C) in a vacuum emptier than outer space. These 'trapped' ions can then be manipulated to perform gate operations, the means by which the processing power of the computer is generated. The group is now working on scaling up the process and has developed sophisticated nanotechnology to produce microchips that contain arrays of ion traps and thousands of electrodes to allow the generation of 'quantum' memory.

Lasers play a key role in creating the processing
power of quantum computers

Lasers play a key role in creating the processing power of quantum computers.

The laboratory, consisting of a group of 14 researchers, many of them DPhil students and undergraduates, offers some unique opportunities to young scientists. Undergraduates are able to apply for Junior Research Associate scholarships that help fund their work on dedicated projects within the lab over the summer vacation or to carry out their final year project during term time, giving them hands on practical research experience at a very early stage of their careers. As a result, many of the elements of this world-leading quantum technology experiment have been built by undergraduates.

The first large-scale quantum computers are likely to be housed in collaborative, central research facilities where scientists will be able to send their data for analysis. It is estimated that the research to build such systems will take another 10-15 years, although there are many interesting offshoots along the way, as particular aspects of the technology, such as the development of lasers and nanotechnology, have other potential applications and commercial value.

Michelle's perspective

Michelle Tieng

I chose to do my MSc project in the Ion Quantum Technology Group because I was intrigued by their research on developing new quantum technologies. I'm working on developing shuttling capabilities for trapped ion quantum computing. This involves exploring the various hardware required for carrying out high-speed ion shuttling and finding the optimal hardware solutions. As I've returned to higher education after working for several years, I initially found research work challenging, but Dr Hensinger and my co-supervisors have been very supportive. There is a group meeting every week to discuss our progress and also any problems that we encounter. Dr Hensinger always motivates us to do our best; it's very inspiring to work with group members who are so dedicated and passionate about their research.

Michelle Tieng
MSc Physics student