Boehme’s new study deals with an approach to a quantum computer proposed in 1998 by Australian physicist Bruce Kane in a Nature paper titled “A silicon-based nuclear spin quantum computer.” In such a computer, silicon – the semiconductor used in digital computer chips – would be “doped” with atoms of phosphorus, and data would be encoded in the “spins” of those atoms’ nuclei. Externally applied electric fields would be used to read and process the data stored as “spins.”
Spin is difficult to explain. A simplified way to describe spin is to imagine that each particle – like an electron or proton in an atom – contains a tiny bar magnet, like a compass needle, that points either up or down to represent the particle’s spin. Down and up can represent 0 and 1 in a spin-based quantum computer, in which one qubit could have a value of 0 and 1 simultaneously.
In the new study, Boehme and colleagues used silicon doped with phosphorus atoms. By applying an external electrical current, they were able to “read” the net spin of 10,000 of the electrons and nuclei of phosphorus atoms near the surface of the silicon.
A real quantum computer would need to read the spins of single particles, not thousands of them. But previous efforts, which used a technique called magnetic resonance, were able to read only the net spins of the electrons of 10 billion phosphorus atoms combined, so the new study represents a million-fold improvement and shows it is feasible to read single spins – something that would take another 10,000-fold improvement, Boehme says.
With improved design, it should be possible to build a much smaller device that “lets us read a single phosphorus nucleus.”
This kind of quantum computer is still some time from development. Other quantum computers like the adiabatic quantum computing are closer to realization.