The Quantum FM Radio

Bradley Ramsey
Dec 10, 2019 · 4 min read

What was once an enigmatic and exotic concept is now more tangible than ever

Bettmann / Contributor

Next time you think that we have everything figured out, check out quantum mechanics. At the atomic level, all of the rules go out the window. It’s a fascinating and somewhat terrifying subject to dive into, but it could also hold the future of electronics and computing. Quantum technology, though, is often discussed with an air of skepticism in terms of mainstream adoption.

The general consensus is that the required materials and stability needed to harness the tech is far beyond anything used in conventional electronics. Thanks to a new breakthrough from scientists at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, all of that could go out the window as well.

A Crash Course in Quantum Computing

My last run-in with quantum technology was working on Supplyframe’s “Real Talk Electronics” magazine, where we featured a piece entitled “A Quantum Computer Shopping List” by Robert Smith and Matt Reagor at Rigetti Computing on page 9.

This was the first time I had been given perspective on the sheer complexity of hardware that powers a modern quantum computer. Having read that piece, I too was convinced that modern mainstream hardware would never be capable of utilizing quantum mechanics.

With Moore’s Law slowly dying (or dead based on your perspective), a new solution is indeed in order. Quantum computing offers a potential way forward by leaving the old binary architecture behind. In this type of computing, information is stored in qubits that can be 0, 1, or a superposition of both.

One of the best explanations I’ve heard is from Michael Wang, who describes quantum computing like this:

“Imagine a library that includes every book ever written. A conventional computer would read each book sequentially to search for a particular phase. Quantum computers would read all the books simultaneously. This is because qubits can be linked with other qubits, a property known as entanglement.”

Now, before we go down the proverbial rabbit hole, let’s shift our focus back to the breakthrough.

It Turns Out You Can Teach Old Hardware New Tricks

From left) graduate students Kevin Miao, Chris Anderson, and Alexandre Bourassa monitor quantum experiments at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Credit: David Awschalom

Modern iterations of quantum computers rely on exotic materials and hardware like superconducting metals, levitated atoms, diamonds, or impressive monstrosities like the Dilution Refrigerator featured in the Supplyframe magazine article I mentioned earlier.

This made them seem like lofty concepts that would take years to appear on the market. A team of scientists at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering challenged this idea this week when they published two papers in Science and Science Advances.

In these papers, they showcased electronically controlled quantum states embedded in silicon carbide, which is used as a semiconductor in a variety of mass-produced electronics. As an added benefit, these quantum states also emit single particles of light at a wavelength close to the telecommunications band.

According to David Awschalom, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, this would allow them to utilize existing fiber-optic networks to transmit data across long distances.

Taking this concept further, the team was also able to combine these light particles with existing electronics to build a “quantum FM radio” that could send data over mass distances in the same way that music is sent to your car’s radio.

A second breakthrough detailed in the papers also describes a way to solve a universal problem in quantum technologies: electronic noise. Since impurities are a fact of life in semiconductors, these imperfections can ruin data at a quantum level by creating a “noisy electrical environment” as co-first author Chris Anderson describes it.

The solution here was quite simple. The team used a diode circuit to stabilize the signal and remove the noise. Alexandre Bourossa, the other co-first author on the paper explains:

“In our experiments we need to use lasers, which unfortunately jostle the electronics around. It’s like a game of musical chairs with electrons; when the light goes out everything stops, but in a different configuration. The problem is that this random configuration of electrons affects our quantum state. But we found that applying electric fields removes the electrons from the system and makes it much more stable.”

So what does this mean for the future of quantum computing? David Awschalom describes a future where quantum information could be stored and distributed across the world’s pre-existing fiber optic networks. It could even lead to innovations like truly secure communication channels, and even a quantum internet.

If there’s one thing I’m certain about here, it’s that this breakthrough could be the catalyst quantum technology needs to break into mainstream electronics.

Time will tell, or it won’t. Quantum mechanics are funny like that.


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