Bristol University makes major leaps in quantum technology with new optical chip

The new chip offers a chance to process photons in an infinite number of ways
24th August 2015

university-bristol-physics-chipScientists and researchers at the University of Bristol and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) in Japan have created an optical chip that could be the first building block in making a super-fast quantum computer, one that could leave current silicon-powered computers in the shade.

The chip, which can process photons in an infinite number of ways, simplifies quantum optics experiments, allowing for ground-breaking hypotheses to be tested such as cracking the design and simulation of new drugs, as well as carrying out super-fast database searches in a matter of seconds, that would previously have taken months or even years.

Researcher and team-member Chris Sparrows, tells us: “This has been a goal of our team for a number of years. Although the mathematics behind the circuitry are over a hundred years old, and the connection to quantum physics was made over twenty years ago, it had not been possible due to the complexity of the optical circuitry required, with photon losses also proving troublesome. The realisation of the chip came about thanks to the collaboration between world-leading thinkers at Bristol and the world-leading telecommunications and planar lightwave technology experts at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) in Japan.”

“A whole field of research has essentially been put onto a single optical chip that is easily controlled”

 

It’s quite a breakthrough, as Dr Anthony Laing, who led the project in Bristol University, explains: “A whole field of research has essentially been put onto a single optical chip that is easily controlled. The implications of the work go beyond the huge resource savings.  Now anybody can run their own experiments with photons, much like they operate any other piece of software on a computer.  They no longer need to convince a physicist to devote many months of their life to painstakingly build and conduct a new experiment.”

“Now anybody can run their own experiments with photons, much like they operate any other piece of software on a computer”

 

This opens up a whole new world for researchers striving to understand nature at a quantum level and to engineer and control quantum states of light and matter, which in turn could lead to huge advances in health, security, engineering and more.

Sci-fi realities: Professor Jeremy O’Brien, Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics at Bristol University explores some of the potential for quantum technologies on the whole

Chris tells us one example of how the chip has already aided the stages of mathematical investigation, previously impossible for supercomputers.

 “What we’re really excited about is using these chips to discover new science that we haven’t even thought of yet”

 

He explains: “Each protocol would have previously required an individual experimental setup or device which would need to be designed, made and aligned; a process which generally takes many months.

Our chip can be switched between all of these protocols in seconds, meaning new ideas can go from conception to experimental reality almost immediately.”

Bristol PhD student Jacques Carolan, one of the researchers, adds: “We carried out a year’s worth of experiments in a matter of hours. What we’re really excited about is using these chips to discover new science that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Despite this amazing achievement, there’s no resting for these researchers. Chris says: “Some of our next goals are to combine this device with integrated photon sources and detectors in order to scale this technology up towards the regime where we can perform calculations which would be impossible with conventional computers.”

Get involved

Combining the world’s leading quantum photonics group at Bristol University with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), the world’s leading telecommunications company has proved key to advances in this field of quantum physics. However, you don’t need to be a world-leading scientist to get involved.

The University of Bristol has also pioneered the first ‘Quantum in the Cloud’ – a publicly available quantum processor designed so others can discover the quantum world for themselves, with plans to add more chips like this to the service in the near future.

Many thanks to Chris and the research team for answering our questions. You can keep up-to-date with Bristol University research at University of Bristol News. You can also follow the University of Bristol on Twitter at: @BristolUni