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Most Powerful Computer Could Come from Tiny Crystal

James Freericks

Physics professor James Freericks says a tiny man-made crystal he and others researched has the potential to store more information than "the sum of all of the computers ever built." (Photo by Ruth Monnier)

April 25, 2012 – A tiny, man-made crystal is poised to become one of the most powerful and most difficult to hack computers in existence, according to physics professor James Freericks and a team of researchers.

“This computer stores more information than what can be stored on the sum of all of the computers ever built, and has the potential to perform calculations that would require conventional computers larger than the size of the universe,” Freericks says.

The results of the study will be published in the prestigious science journal Nature on April 26.

Surpassing Records

Freericks worked with scientists from the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the University of Sydney in Australia, North Carolina State University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa on the project.

“We found that the computer with the crystal far surpasses previous records for the number of atoms working together in a functioning quantum computer,” Freericks says. “This means such a computer would likely have the ability to perform computations that current powerful supercomputers cannot.”

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office, has important implications for security encryption systems.

Hack Proof

“The biggest application at this point that has driven a lot of interest in quantum computing is that if you have quantum computers, you can send coded messages that could never be decoded … you can’t break a quantum-encrypted message,” Freericks explains.

He says the quantum simulator holds a lot of promise for the future.

“This is just one of the kinds of quantum simulators that are being used,” he says. “There’s a lot of success that we’ve had with them so far, so I think there’s going to be a bright future in the next few years for these kinds of things.”

Richard Feynman, who died in the late 1980s, was famous for his 20th century work in quantum mechanics, came up with the idea for the quantum simulator.

System Mimicking

Scientists from NIST used the simulator to mimic another system (the properties of a computer using the crystal) that is not yet understood.

The Georgetown team, which included postdoctoral fellow Joseph Wang and Adam Keith, an undergraduate from North Carolina State University, was responsible for determining how the ions in the quantum simulator interacted with lasers and microwaves used in the experiments.

“This information was critical to being able to understand the data coming out of the NIST laboratory,” Freericks says.

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