Img/2012/4/26/comp-100.jpgSydney: A physicist from Sydney has created a tiny computer of 300 atoms hovering in space that has the potential to provide insights into how materials behave at the quantum level that none of today’s conventional computers would be capable of calculating.
When fully operational, its performance could only be matched by an impossibly large machine, said Michael Biercuk, a Sydney physicist and member of the international team that built and tested it.
“The system we have developed has the potential to perform calculations that would require a supercomputer larger than the size of the known universe. And it does it all in a diameter of less than a millimetre,” the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Biercuk from the University of Sydney as saying.
The device, known as a quantum simulator, is just one atom thick.
Its 300 charged beryllium atoms are trapped in suspension by magnetic and electric fields, and their interactions can be controlled by lasers.
Biercuk said the tiny device’s role was like that of a scale model of an aircraft wing, which engineers might test in a wind tunnel to try to design a better plane.
“Tremendous insights about complex quantum systems can be gleaned using a quantum scale model,” he said.
For example, scientists want to design new materials, such as high-temperature superconductors, whose properties depend on the collective quantum behaviour of billions of atoms.
The traditional approach to design would be to run computer models that mimic how all the particles in a material interact to try to predict its overall properties.
But this is extremely difficult with quantum systems, because particles can behave weirdly at the quantum level, such as being in two distinct states at the same time - a characteristic known as superposition.
“Beyond about 30 to 40 particles interacting, there is no computer in the world that can simultaneously represent all the different possibilities of how those particles interact,” Biercuk said.
The team’s quantum simulator was designed to study quantum magnetism, with the outer electrons of the beryllium ions acting as tiny quantum magnets.
Built by a team led by Joseph Britton of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, the device has broken the record for the number of interacting elements in a programmable quantum simulator.
The results of the study have been published in the journal Nature.