The world has seen only the tip of the iceberg of what computers can do. In elite quantum engineering laboratories around the world, a new and much more astonishing version is starting to emerge – the quantum computer.
Strange things have proven possible at the logic gates of a quantum processor.
Rather than just the zero and one states (or bits) of a classical processor, the quantum variety (a qubit) can achieve a superposition of both. This allows much more information to be encoded into qubits compared to classical bits, allowing them to solve problems that stump classical computers.
The engineers, however, face a massive challenge – quantum computers are not readily mass manufacturable. They are the size of a room and require cryogenic systems to maintain the processor at –273oC (or close to absolute zero). This is essential to silence the vibrational noise of atoms that disrupts the strange entanglements and superpositions of the qubits.
Globally, a race is on to engineer a commercially viable quantum processor. As that race enters the final lap, one Australian start-up, Quantum Brilliance, is among the world’s frontrunners.
Diamonds join silicon as an ideal computing material
Central to the progress made by Quantum Brilliance is the ability to microscopically manipulate synthetic diamonds to create what are called nitrogen vacancy centres (NVCs). This involves embedding nitrogen molecules into the diamond using atomic-scale techniques.
NVCs are widely recognised as ideal for use as a quantum processor since diamond is exceptionally inert and blocks out vibrational noise. The nitrogen can then act as a logic gate using light to produce zero and one states.
However, to realise the extraordinary potential of qubits requires placing the NVCs extremely close to each other – to within 10 nanometers of each other (that’s 10 billionths of a metre).
While scientists are generally able to randomly implant nitrogen into the diamond, a far greater precision was conceived by Dr Marcus Doherty and Dr Andrew Horsley at the Australian National University.
Jayden Castillo from Quantum Brilliance explains that Marcus and Andrew identified a way to deterministically place nitrogen molecules into the diamond in order to transform NVCs into qubits.
“The pair patented the method and established Quantum Brilliance in 2019 to exploit the breakthrough and commercialise the technology,” Castillo says.
The outcome is potentially stunning. Quantum Brilliance aims to reduce a quantum computer to the size of a lunchbox that can operate at room temperature.
That potential was realised when they delivered a two-qubit computer to the Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre in 2022. The device was configured so that it can work alongside a classical HPE Cray EX Supercomputer. The company also set up a partnership with the Centre to explore software possibilities and practical applications for the dual system.
In a sense, synthetic diamonds were successfully engineered by Quantum Brilliance to fulfil the same role played by etched silicon in traditional computers.
Manufacturing in Australia takes a quantum leap
Castillo says the company’s next target is far more challenging.
It wants to build a processor with about 50 NVCs that are able to function as interlinked (or entangled) qubits by 2026. At that size, the processor would exceed all current understanding of what quantum computers can do.
Getting there requires creating – from scratch – specialised mass manufacturing capability built around atomic-scale technology.
“We have a roadmap to hit our targets,” says Castillo. “That roadmap involves first marketing products that contain between two and five qubits. Meanwhile, our development team pushes on to the larger goal of opening up new frontiers in computer science.”
The roadmap also involves recruiting personnel, with the company now employing about 90 people. Importantly, key leadership roles have been filled, with Dr Doherty serving as chief scientific officer, Dr Horsley taking on the role of chief executive officer and Mark Luo joining them from CSIRO as chief operations officer.
The company is ambitious, wanting to translate Australia’s world-leading quantum technology research into a fully fledged ecosystem of users and suppliers of quantum computers, alongside investors willing to engage in this once-in-a-lifetime transformational technology.
Pathways to commercialisation
In September 2020 Quantum Brilliance received an $828,666 Accelerating Commercialisation Grant under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme and guidance by Commercialisation Facilitators at i4 Connect.
Castillo says the grant was used to produce a two-qubit prototype (measured at Technology Readiness Level 6 – an increase from TRL 4), but the Accelerating Commercialisation service delivered an important additional benefit.
“With the Accelerating Commercialisation service, it’s not just about the cash,” he says. “There’s a visibility that comes with the grant that helped us in terms of our credibility and our image. It also opened up connections and other grant opportunities.”
That credibility saw Quantum Brilliance raise $13.4 million in capital in 2021. In 2022, the company was chosen as the commercialisation partner in a €17.5 million project funded by the German Government to develop a scalable quantum computer.
The i4 Connect facilitator for Quantum Brilliance is Arthur Pappas. He says it can be costly to go from something that works in the lab to something that is commercially viable and works for a customer.
“That’s the funding gap that Accelerating Commercialisation helps to close,” he says. “With Quantum Brilliance, they were very methodical, very coachable and they ended up following an almost perfect path for a start-up. They had excellent core studies and they implemented a viable commercial pilot, and that allowed them to raise capital.”
Like the company itself, Pappas believes that it is vitally important to Australia and its economy that companies like Quantum Brilliance succeed. With no serious competition when it comes to computers that work at room temperature, that seems highly likely. However, in Quantum Brilliance, Pappas sees a company that is more than just about the product.
“They understand they are pioneers, and they have this way of working that embeds the technical advances in real-world efforts to realise the technology’s potential,” Pappas says. “My prediction is that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”