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Nanoelectronics November 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Quantum-Computing Competition

Why is this topic significant?

D-Wave is the dominant player in quantum computing. Google is a relative newcomer to the field but could potentially become highly competitive in the long term.

Description

In September 2014, Google Quantum Artificial Intelligence announced the launch of a quantum-computing (QC) research program. The team includes Professor John Martinis from The University of California, Santa Barbara—a highly regarded researcher within the QC field. Dr. Martinis' job at Google followed the July 2014 paper in Science—to which he contributed—that claimed "no evidence of quantum speedup" exists in D-Wave machines. D-Wave refuted these claims by stating that the researchers employed the wrong types of tests to demonstrate quantum speedup.

The new group plans to improve on the D-Wave system and fabricate novel quantum information processors that retain their quantum states for longer periods. D-Wave focuses on adiabatic QC—the "soft-QC" systems functioning more like analogue computers. The Google group seems to be adopting a "hard-QC" approach to produce true quantum logic gates, whereby the qubits have to remain in their quantum state long enough to interact with one another. The Google researchers claim that their designs will enable the qubits to retain their quantum state for approximately 30 microseconds, as opposed to mere nanoseconds in D-Wave systems.

Despite Google's new QC hardware initiative, the company states that it will continue to work with NASA on their jointly owned D-Wave machine (which they bought in 2013 and which will soon have an upgrade to a 1024-qubit system) and with D-Wave directly—continuing this long-standing collaboration.

Implications

QC is an extremely challenging field to break into, and—in the short term at least—Google is extremely unlikely to compete with D-Wave—which is, by a considerable margin, the leading player in the commercialization of QC systems.

However, Google certainly has the financial clout necessary to make an impact in this field, as evidenced by its highly disruptive research in the driverless-cars sector. With big-data analytics forming such a central role to its business model, the company has a vested interest in advancing QC technology. Indeed, the utility of QC to Google may even mean that the likelihood of Google's going into direct competition with D-Wave is low, instead choosing to keep any resultant technology in-house. The limited market for such machines and the departure from Google's standard business model that commercializing this technology would entail support this conclusion.

Statements suggest that, despite Google's moves to engage in QC research directly, it will continue to collaborate with D-Wave. However, the competitive nature of research and Dr. Martinis' history of publicly criticizing D-Wave machines could mean that such collaborations do not continue in as fruitful a manner as could have otherwise been the case.

Impacts/Disruptions

QC does not, as yet, display any clear advantages over more conventional systems and must overcome many technological barriers before it can make the sort of impact of which many people believe it is capable. However, the technology could one day prove disruptive to the semiconductor industry, potentially replacing the need for conventional processers in some applications. The defense industry is also displaying a keen interest in QC advances, largely because of the great potential that this technology holds in encryption applications. Fundamental scientific research could also benefit as a result of the ability to simulate quantum phenomena.

The growing importance of big data is certainly a driver for QC development. However, at this stage, the extent to which QC will make a serious impact on the future technological landscape remains unclear.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Semiconductor, big data, artificial intelligence, defense

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Cooling Electrons at Room Temperature

Why is this topic significant?

Increasing IC efficiency is a key driver within the semiconductor industry. Recent groundbreaking research in the field of electron cooling could potentially aid the commercialization of highly efficient single-electron transistors.

Description

In September 2014, scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington published the results of their work into room-temperature electron cooling—a research first. The article, which appeared in Nature Communications, details how the researchers cooled electrons to –228°C by passing them through a quantum well—a material that contains only discrete energy levels. The nanoscale structure—comprising a chromium source electrode, a 2-nanometer-thick layer of Cr2O3 that acts as the quantum well, a silica tunneling barrier, a cadmium selenide quantum dot, another tunneling barrier, and a chromium drain electrode—effectively filters out thermally excited electrons and completely removes any need for external cooling systems. Previously, efforts to cool electrons meant placing devices in baths of liquid nitrogen or liquid helium—an expensive, energy-intensive process and completely impractical for any commercial applications. This technology is of interest to researchers aiming to fabricate highly efficient transistors that could reduce the energy consumption of electronic devices by a factor of more than 10.

Implications

These developments represent fundamental academic research that will not have immediate commercial implications. Nevertheless, this research is also an impressive first that could, in the longer term, enable electronic devices to function using very little energy and go some way toward solving the heat-dissipation problems that are currently facing developers in the IC industry.

The researchers were able to use the technology to demonstrate single-electron transistors that function at room temperature, and they are now focusing their efforts in further developing these devices. Large efficiency enhancements, if the technology were to achieve widespread adoption, could revolutionize many aspects of the consumer-electronics industry.

Impacts/Disruptions

The use of highly efficient single-electron transistors in standard electronic equipment would undoubtedly contribute to an increase in performance and a reduction in device size—the two principal driving forces that contribute to progress within the semiconductor industry. The concomitant reduction in power consumption would result in obvious environmental benefits. More efficient ICs would also have a significant impact on the portable-power industry—reducing battery weight or increasing battery lifetimes or doing both. An overall reduction in equipment weight would be particularly beneficial for defense applications—potentially relieving soldiers of burdensome kit or increasing the flight time of unmanned aerial vehicles.

However, despite the wide range of potential benefits, this research is still at a very early stage, and many technological barriers remain before the commercial realization of such devices can occur. For example, researchers are yet to demonstrate how to stop the cooler electrons from regaining thermal energy as they travel across the components within a circuit. Additionally, challenges could exist in integrating exotic materials such as quantum wells into mainstream IC processes. Certain niche applications or components could be the principal beneficiaries of this technology.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Semiconductor, defense

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: