Brrr: The chilly conditions that quantum computers need to run

The quantum computers that Lockheed Martin and Google (s GOOG) are buying — and that startup D-Wave is building — have some pretty extreme operating conditions: they need to run at near zero temperatures for the quantum effects to work.

Investor Steve Jurvetson next to a pulse fridge that cools a D-Wave quantum computer

Investor Steve Jurvetson next to a pulse fridge that cools a D-Wave quantum computer

As you can see in this photo from venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, D-Wave uses a pulse fridge to cool the quantum computer to .02 degrees above absolute zero, and they use Helium-3 in the cooling process.

Quantum computers use a different type of processing compared to traditional computing. As GigaOM’s Jordan Novet explained it earlier this year, “rather than working with binary yes-or-no questions — ones and zeros — quantum computing is more probabilistic, also allowing a combination of zero and one to simultaneously answer many questions with quantum bits of information, or qubits, and tell users more about the likelihood of a situation. It’s not necessarily useful for all kinds of computing, but it could solve problems that current computers can’t.”

Keeping quantum computers that can perform such functions cool can be a tricky process. It’s highly energy intensive and can get expensive. But if the quantum computers are not cooled down, the molecules — which are being manipulated to store data — move around chaotically and can’t be manipulated and read.

Earlier this year physicists at UCLA developed a new cooling process that immerses charged barium chloride molecules into a super cold cloud of calcium atoms. That research is being funded by the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.