Scientists have built a new quantum chip that will enable the creation of completely secure mobile phones and ultra-fast computers with capabilities far beyond today's devices.
The international research team behind the breakthrough, who are based at the University of Bristol, will detail the development at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen this week.
In the short term, the team are applying the technology to safe communications for mobile phones and computers, which would make online banking and internet shopping more secure. Phones could be protected against hacking attempts.
Quantum technology has long been a scientific dream. The quantum chip, made from silicon, works on light and is thousands of times smaller than the glass chips used previously. It will enable mass production of quantum technologies, leading first to secure mobile phones and eventually to ultra-fast quantum computers.
Fabricating quantum circuits in silicon has the huge advantage of compatibility with modern electronics. According to Jeremy O'Brien, physics professor at Bristol, quantum processors could be integrated with conventional microelectronic circuits within three to five years.
The research – carried out in collaboration with high-tech companies Toshiba of Japan, Nokia of Finland and Oclaro of the UK, and with Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and Delft University in the Netherlands – is an essential step towards miniaturising optical quantum computers.
Antti Niskanen, research leader at Nokia Research Centre in Cambridge, said: "Understanding quantum photonics opens exciting prospects for further research into security, sensors and information processing. Security of personal data, the ability for a device to sense the world around it and the ability to quickly interpret this information all offer future benefits for mobile device users," Mr Niskanen added.
The new chip is made from silicon, like the microprocessors in all computers and smart phones. Unlike conventional silicon chips that work by controlling electrical current, the quantum chips manipulate particles of light, called photons, to perform calculations. A quantum computing device with 100 photons could in principle solve trillions of equations at the same time.
Because the technology uses the same silicon manufacturing techniques as conventional chips, a manufacturer can easily produce millions of quantum chips.
The new circuits are compatible with existing optical glass fibre infrastructure used in broadband communications, because they operate at the same wavelengths. "The global communications network, including the internet, is powered by fibre optics which use light to move information at high speed between countries, cities and buildings," said Mark Thompson, deputy director of Bristol's Centre for Quantum Photonics. "Our devices are directly compatible – in a sense they talk the same language."
A quantum computer can solve complex problems that ordinarily take too long even for supercomputers. Tasks include financial risk analysis, object recognition in images, database searches and the design of new materials, drugs and clean tech devices.
"Just as wind tunnels are not used for aircraft designs any more but [have been] replaced by computer simulations, in the future we may be able to replace most chemistry labs with quantum computers," says Prof O'Brien.