Scientists move closer to ultrafast quantum computing at room temperature

Quantum computers could someday be millions of times more faster than the best supercomputers today because they can work on a huge number of calculations at the same time. An international team of researchers announced Thursday (subscription required) that they are closer to creating a practical quantum computer after creating bits of information that survived at room temperature for 39 minutes; The previous record was 2 seconds.

Generally, quantum computers need to operate at near to absolute zero (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) to preserve the special characteristics of the particles on which they rely. In this case, the researchers took around 10 billion phosphorus atoms and manipulated their nuclei until they entered a key quantum state: They could be a “0” or a “1” at the same time. Current computers store data as a string of “0s” and “1s”, which are registered in sequence. When an atom can be a “0” and a “1” at the same time, it allows the computer to make many calculations at once.

Atoms in that special quantum state are known as a qubit, and they can also be used to store information. The researchers manipulated the phosphorus nuclei at a few degrees above absolute zero and then raised the temperature to 77 degrees. They survived for 39 minutes–a world record.

“These lifetimes are at least 10 times longer than those measured in previous experiments,” paper author and Oxford University research fellow Stephanie Simmons said in a release. “They’re high-performance qubits.”

Quantum computers that operate at room temperature would end the need for energy-hogging cooling centers. The researchers’ breakthrough still requires qubits to be created and deciphered at freezing temperatures, however, so more work needs to be done.

Simmons noted that to run complicated calculations with the room-temperature qubits, they all need to be in different states to store different data. The work released today dealt with qubits that were all identical, limiting their usefulness.