Diamonds are a Quantum Computer’s Best Friend

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Professor Dirk Englund of Columbia Engineering develops quantum computer by studying atoms trapped in diamondsQuantum computers have the potential to fly past Moore’s Law and give us a new generation of ultra powerful supercomputers. The new technology is based on the behavior of photons, the smallest particles that make up light, which could mean the potential for packing that power into smaller, more energy efficient devices than anything known today. However, there is one little problem…how do you get a photon to behave the way you want it to behave? As it turns out, the seeds of a solution can be found in microscopic flaws within diamonds.

Quantum Computers 101

To get a grasp on the current state of the research into quantum computers, CleanTechnica touched base with Dirk Englund, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and applied physics at Columbia Engineering, who kindly shared his “elevator pitch.”

“In my research, we apply the theory [of quantum mechanics] to photons — single ‘packets’ of light — to carry and manipulate information,” said Englund.  “A single photon is an object that follows strange rules that defy our classical intuition.  But it’s this strange quantum behavior that we can exploit for very powerful processes.”

To help a neophyte visualize the difference between conventional computers and quantum computers, Englund referred to the “coin” analogy, in which two coins are arranged heads-or-tails in four possible states. In a conventional computer, the two coins could only be in one state at a time. In a quantum computer, those same two coins could hold all four states at once.

But What Good is a Quantum Computer?

Aside from the potential savings in energy and other resources, quantum computers would be capable of handling massive amounts of data that conventional computers just can’t handle. Quantum computers could tackle giant problems such as protein folding, which may not involve particularly complex equations but are beyond the data storage capacity of conventional computers.

Diamonds and Quantum Computers

The diamonds come into play in terms of pushing the foundational research forward. Normally in Englund’s field, atoms are studied in a gaseous state, which takes a tremendous amount of overhead in terms of equipment and expense.

“We are using atomic impurities in diamonds – you can look at this as ‘trapped atoms’ — as an alternative to researching ‘free’ atoms in space,” Englund said. “Altogether we’re seeing ideas for gas-phase being transferred into the realm of solid state physics.”

The diamonds that Englund is studying would hardly make for decent bling – they are actually microscopic diamond crystals – and even if they were larger, they might not pass muster with Harry Winston.

“Impurities are often looked down upon in diamonds from a gemstone point of view,” Englund explained. “Actually they are atoms that are trapped and emit light, and that gives diamonds their hues. Those associated with certain colors are special; they are like ‘well behaved’ atoms trapped in a lattice.”

A Long Road to the Computer of the Future

For now, Englund’s team is working on a device that would integrate quantum photonics into chips. The result would not be a “pure” quantum computer, but a quantum analog of a conventional computer.

The result will also be rather “clunky and quite expensive,” in the foreseeable future, so quantum computers will most likely be out of reach of the consumer market for many years. However, Englund does anticipate that elements of quantum photonic research will begin to show up in other ways, for example in communications technology, especially in the transmission of secure messages.

Don’t Forget to Thank the Air Force

Typically in other countries this kind of foundational research is supported by civilian funding, but Englund’s work – which has obvious application to civilian products – is being supported by the Department of Defense. That probably won’t surprise regular readers of CleanTechnica; we’ve covered any number of stories relating to DoD’s promotion of renewable energy projects that easily cross over to civilian use, including portable solar power kits, geothermal energy, and aviation biofuels.

Last week, Englund was awarded the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, for which he was nominated by the U.S. Air Force. The award comes with a $500,000 prize in support of five more years of research, so fingers crossed for quantum computers sooner rather than later.

Photo credit: Diamonds hold key to quantum computers, some rights reserved by jurvetson.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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