Vuckovic’s Stanford team is developing materials that can trap a single, isolated electron. Working with collaborators worldwide, they have recently tested three different approaches to the problem, one of which can operate at room temperature – a critical step if quantum computing is going to become a practical tool.
In all three cases the group started with semiconductor crystals, material with a regular atomic lattice like the girders of a skyscraper. By slightly altering this lattice, they sought to create a structure in which the atomic forces exerted by the material could confine a spinning electron.
“We are trying to develop the basic working unit of a quantum chip, the equivalent of the transistor on a silicon chip,” Vuckovic said.
One way to create this laser-electron interaction chamber is through a structure known as a quantum dot. Physically, the quantum dot is a small amount of indium arsenide inside a crystal of gallium arsenide. The atomic properties of the two materials are known to trap a spinning electron.
In a recent paper in Nature Physics, Kevin Fischer, a graduate student in the Vuckovic lab, describes how the laser-electron processes can be exploited within such a quantum dot to control the input and output of light. By sending more laser power to the quantum dot, the researchers could force it to emit exactly two photons rather than one. They say the quantum dot has practical advantages over other leading quantum computing platforms but still requires cryogenic cooling, so it may not be useful for general-purpose computing. However, it could have applications in creating tamper-proof communications networks.
In two other papers Vuckovic took a different approach to electron capture, by modifying a single crystal to trap light in what is called a color center.
In a recent paper published in NanoLetters, her team focused on color centers in diamond. In nature the crystalline lattice of a diamond consists of carbon atoms. Jingyuan Linda Zhang, a graduate student in Vuckovic’s lab, described how a 16-member research team replaced some of those carbon atoms with silicon atoms. This one alteration created color centers that effectively trapped spinning electrons in the diamond lattice.
But like the quantum dot, most diamond color center experiments require cryogenic cooling. Though that is an improvement over other approaches that required even more elaborate cooling, Vuckovic wanted to do better.
So she worked with another global team to experiment with a third material, silicon carbide. Commonly known as carborundum, silicon carbide is a hard, transparent crystal used to make clutch plates, brake pads and bulletproof vests. Prior research had shown that silicon carbide could be modified to create color centers at room temperature. But this potential had not yet been made efficient enough to yield a quantum chip.
Silicon carbide is a promising platform for single photon sources, quantum bits (qubits), and nanoscale sensors based on individual color centers. Toward this goal, we develop a scalable array of nanopillars incorporating single silicon vacancy centers in 4H-SiC, readily available for efficient interfacing with free-space objective and lensed-fibers. A commercially obtained substrate is irradiated with 2 MeV electron beams to create vacancies. Subsequent lithographic process forms 800 nm tall nanopillars with 400–1400 nm diameters. We obtain high collection efficiency of up to 22 kcounts/s optical saturation rates from a single silicon vacancy center while preserving the single photon emission and the optically induced electron-spin polarization properties. Our study demonstrates silicon carbide as a readily available platform for scalable quantum photonics architecture relying on single photon sources and qubits.
Vuckovic’s team knocked certain silicon atoms out of the silicon carbide lattice in a way that created highly efficient color centers. They also fabricated nanowire structures around the color centers to improve the extraction of photons. Radulaski was the first author on that experiment, which is described in another NanoLetters paper. She said the net results – an efficient color center, operating at room temperature, in a material familiar to industry – were huge pluses.
“We think we’ve demonstrated a practical approach to making a quantum chip,” Radulaski said.
But the field is still in its early days and electron tapping is no simple feat. Even the researchers aren’t sure which method or methods will win out.
“We don’t know yet which approach is best, so we continue to experiment,” Vuckovic said.