With exceptional processing power and some wicked physics, quantum computers promise to answer new questions, create new materials and synthesize new drugs.
“It’s a true revolution in technology and human life,” says University of Florida physics professor Hai-Ping Cheng, who’s on the forefront of quantum research.
With a new $10.5 million quantum research grant and a proposal for an even bigger center, UF is preparing to be a major player in the field. But what is it, and why does it matter?
To answer those questions, we have to understand what quantum mechanics is. Here’s your quantum computing cheat sheet and sneak peak at UF’s future role in the game.
Physics is the set of laws that describes how things work. Physicists group these laws into different branches — let’s call them “books.” The book of laws for objects on the human-sized scale (things we see and interact with regularly) is called “classical mechanics.” Quantum mechanics is the book for microscopic things: molecules, atoms and things even smaller than atoms.
Why care about things we can’t see? For one, they teach us about the things we can. We can’t study magnets without understanding quantum mechanics. We also take advantage of some special properties and laws in the quantum world to do things that we can’t do in our world.
Tiny world, big surprises
In the world of really really small things, the laws of physics are not the ones we’re used to. If quantum mechanics governed our world, we could run into any of the following scenarios demonstrating quantum principles:
- Superposition: Schroedinger’s cat is both alive and dead before he checks on it.
- Tunneling: A dart flies right through the dartboard.
- Entanglement: If one twin breaks his leg, the other twin’s leg is also broken.
These properties are hard to conceptualize. They don’t seem right — because in our book, they aren’t. However, like it or not, that’s just the way quantum mechanics works. In fact, we’re so confident in these laws that we can design things specifically to make use of them.
What’s the point?
Physicists exploit quantum mechanics principles to lay the groundwork for everything from lasers to MRI machines, but the applications don’t stop there. In the past few decades, a new kind of computer that makes use of the superposition and entanglement properties has been pursued in an attempt to solve problems that classical computers cannot. Currently, there are about a dozen limited quantum computers around the world.
Quantum computers solve certain difficult problems way faster and in a completely unprecedented manner. While they may never replace current conventional computing for everyday tasks, quantum computers use the otherworldly quantum properties to do things we couldn’t imagine with classical computers, like discovering new materials and drugs and simulating nature by modeling the interaction of millions of atoms and nuclei.
With faster processing speeds, much larger storage capacity, higher energy efficiency and a new method for problem solving, quantum computers can address new questions on a new scale.
What’s the catch?
The main catch lies in the materials that are needed to create quantum computers.
“Right now, nobody knows what the best system is to make quantum computers. There are a lot of problems with the materials we are currently using,” said Cheng, the director of the Center for Molecular Magnetic Quantum Materials (M2QM) at UF.
Currently, quantum computers are constructed mainly of superconductors, which have to be cooled to nearly -460 °F — the coldest possible temperature on earth. On top of that, there’s an issue of “decoherence,” which limits how long information can remain in the quantum state. After a certain number of operations, it breaks down, and the information is lost.
With materials more suited for these conditions, researchers could use quantum computers to reach new heights.
“That’s the sort of thing we’re doing: providing the high-tech materials that people will be able to invest effort into making quantum computers out of,” said Samuel Trickey, senior advisor and investigator of M2QM.
Aside from searching for new materials, UF researchers are experimenting with new ways to get a foot in the door of quantum computing.
“The National Science Foundation wants to put some real effort into supporting quantum information systems,” said Beverly Sanders, a professor in UF’s computer and information systems and engineering department. “They realize this is a very interdisciplinary problem, so instead of just giving people a bunch of little grants, they’re going to be supporting some larger institutes at about $5 million a year for five years.”
Her team was awarded a conceptualization grant last month to create a proposal for one of these quantum information systems centers, which would likely focus on a new field called quantum biology.
“There are some big questions in biology — really important molecules and chemical reactions — that are just not well understood, and they’re not really able to be answered with the techniques we currently have,” Sanders said.
The purpose of this conceptualization project is to create a community of people interested in quantum mechanical applications and to identify some key problems in biology that could be answered using quantum computing.
“Now that it’s marginally feasible, it’s time to push really hard on it,” Trickey said.