Breakthrough in creation of pure silicon could speed quantum computing

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Scientists have hailed a significant breakthrough in the creation of astonishingly pure silicon, marking a pivotal advancement that could greatly accelerate the development of quantum computers. This new material, engineered using a technique that allows for the production of highly purified silicon, is poised to address the longstanding challenge of “fragile quantum coherence” which causes quantum computers to accumulate errors rapidly and become unreliable.

Quantum bits, or qubits, which are the foundational components of quantum computing, are particularly sensitive to environmental changes such as temperature fluctuations. This sensitivity has confined even the most advanced quantum computers to operate in extremely cold environments, limiting their error-free operation to mere fractions of a second.

The breakthrough involves embedding phosphorous atoms into crystals of pure, stable silicon, significantly enhancing the robustness of the qubits. Researchers achieved this by employing a focused silicon beam in a process that drastically reduces impurities—from 4.5 percent to an impressive 0.0002 percent—using a standard ion implanter machine, configured specifically for this purpose.

David Jamieson from the University of Melbourne, who co-supervised the project, highlighted the accessibility of this technology, noting that it utilizes equipment commonly found in semiconductor labs, but tuned to achieve unprecedented levels of silicon purity.

The implications of this development are profound, potentially cutting down the timeline for creating practical quantum computers from ten years to possibly five or less, according to Richard Curry, professor of advanced electronic materials at The University of Manchester, where this research was primarily conducted.

For decades, silicon has been the substrate of choice in manufacturing chips for classical computers. However, natural silicon typically contains impurities that can disrupt the functioning of qubits in quantum computers. By eliminating these impurities, researchers at the University of Manchester have produced the world’s purest silicon, setting the stage for the construction of scalable quantum computers that are both powerful and compact.

The potential applications of functional quantum computers are vast and varied, including revolutionary enhancements in artificial intelligence, communications, pharmaceutical development, and energy utilization.

As the next steps, researchers aim to demonstrate that this highly pure silicon can be used to build a quantum computer with numerous qubits that maintain coherence simultaneously, an essential stride toward realizing the full transformative potential of quantum computing for humankind.

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