As our computing devices shrink from desktop computers down to smart watches, we’re also living at a time when computing itself is being reimagined.
Advances in quantum computing have the potential to revolutionise the most fundamental aspects of computers and electronics – just imagine having a smart watch that is paper-thin, hardly ever needs to be charged and can easily outperform our most advanced computers.
The latest milestone
According to a new study published in Nature, researchers from the US have built a tiny, reprogrammable quantum computer that has the potential to race ahead of conventional computers in terms of information processing.
The quantum computer is made up of just five bits of quantum information, or qubits, which can be controlled by lasers and be completely reconfigured without changes to the hardware.
Professor Stephen Bartlett, an expert in quantum physics from the University of Sydney, calls this breakthrough a “milestone” in quantum computing.
He says that the research has shown “that our approach to quantum computing is sound and sensible, and that building larger and larger devices should be possible”.
Quantum computers by laws of nature
In conventional computing, information is processed in bits that are set as either ones or zeroes, which can be stringed together to code for a specific letter or number. Quantum computing, on the other hand, stores information qubits that can exist as both ones and zeroes at the same time.
Computer bits can be represented by a current, or a large group of electrons, flowing through a device, whereas qubits can be represented by single atoms. This smaller scale of information storage and processing means that things can become more energy efficient.
Professor Andrew Greentree, a theoretical physicist from RMIT, explains that quantum computers are unshackled from the laws of “classical physics” that dictate the functioning of conventional computers.
“If you think about a conventional computer, it’s working with zeros and ones and it processes mathematics using the laws of classical physics,” he tells SBS Science. “Quantum computing uses quantum laws and these are the laws that are used by nature.”
“The energy required to ‘flip’ a qubit ultimately could be very much lower than the energy required to ‘flip’ a bit,” says Greentree.
But how can this be linked to actual computers? With liquid metals and nanotechnology, (of course).
Liquid metal electronics
Researchers from RMIT have taken one step closer to developing electronics that can be truly elastic and malleable thanks to liquid metals, according to another new study published in Nature Communications.
Where modern electronics are based on circuits with fixed metallic tracks and semiconductors (like what you’d see when peeling the back off of an electronic watch, for example), elastic electronics could be built using liquid metals such as the non-toxic alloy gallium that can be manipulated to form new components and tracks on demand.
To experiment with this concept, lead researcher Professor Kalantar-zadeh and his team immersed a droplet of liquid metal, which possesses a highly conductive metallic core and an atomically-thin semiconducting outer skin, in water. By altering the acidity of the water, they were able to manipulate it and change its shape.
Taking it down to nanotechnology
One of the most advanced achievements in nanotechnology to date was the release of IBM’s 7-nanometre-wide chip.
Such advances on a nano-scale, according to nanotechnology expert Professor Nunzio Motta from the Queensland University of Technology, mean that we can start looking at building computer components using two-dimensional materials.
“These can lead to the development of computers that are much less power-hungry as the electrons will be able to travel on a two-dimensional sheet without resistance,” he tells SBS Science.
“What we are looking for are materials that can be employed in electronics that can be faster, smaller and use much less power.”
Prof Motta is currently studying how to build super-capacitors, or batteries, with the potential to completely transform energy storage as we know it. For example, mobile phone batteries could soon hold a week’s worth of energy for optimal performance.
“Imagine if you could have batteries that are cheap, light, can hold a lot of charge and can be charged in only a few minutes,” he says.
“This means we could create new kinds of batteries and this could be a life-changing opportunity for humanity.”