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The Future of Tech: Building Quantum Technology With Ion Beam Accelerators

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Novel quantum-based biosensors using diamond with nitrogen-vacancy centres are being developed through at 10-year project called Q-LEAP. These sensors could vastly improve the study of human brain functions, such as real-time detection of thoughts. (Image: Y. Yamazaki/National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology, Japan)

Quantum technology is paving the way for smaller, faster and more flexible electronics than ever before, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanners the size of smartphones and quantum computers that are thousands of times more powerful than traditional computers. Now on the brink of the second quantum revolution, which promises new ways to measure, process and transmit information, scientists are working on accelerator-based techniques for developing new materials that could speed up development of quantum technologies.

“The first quantum revolution was about building devices based on the ability to control photons and electrons, which led to the personal computer, LED lighting, even GPS and the Internet. In the second revolution, it’s about controlling the quantum state of individual atomic systems to create more advanced technology that is capable of solving previously impossible problems,” said David Jamieson, Professor at the University of Melbourne and chair of the IAEA coordinated research project behind this work: ‘Ion beam induced spatio-temporal structural evolution of materials: accelerators for a new technology era’.

The coordinated research project, launched in December 2016, has brought together leading scientists from Australia, China, Croatia, Finland, Italy, India, Israel, Singapore, Spain and the USA. The main aim of the project is to develop novel, accelerator-based ion beam techniques for creating and characterizing modified material required for new quantum technologies.

“Accelerator-based techniques involve high-energy ions that allow us to create atomic-scale modifications, or defects, in materials such as silicon and diamond, or two-dimensional materials, such as graphene. We can then control the quantum states of these individual atomic-scale defects in the materials, which in turn gives us the capability to control single atoms, including the spin of electrons or nuclei. The result is new materials with the characteristics necessary for advancing quantum technology,” said Jamieson.

Research has already shown ways these techniques can be used to modify materials. For example, single, accelerated ions can be implanted into materials, such as diamonds, used for semiconductors to form colour centres with quantum states that are useful for sensing electric and magnetic fields in single living cells. The colour centres can also release photons encoded with quantum states to, for example, transmit information that is secure against eavesdroppers. These materials can be integrated into conventional microelectronic devices such as laptops, smart watches and navigation devices.

The same techniques can also be used to investigate new types of radiation detectors based on diamond, such as radiation sensors that will be able to withstand high levels of radiation for use in radiotherapy treatment for cancer. In the longer term, they can also form the basis of a photonic quantum internet that connects a large-scale array of quantum information processors.

“New quantum technologies could open the door to transformational advances in secure communications, information technology and high precision sensors and provide new solutions to pressing challenges in fields such as medicine, industry, and security, shaping global development in the 21st century,” said Paolo Olivero, Associate Professor at the University of Torino in Italy and a participant in the project. “But there are still some major hurdles to address before many of these technologies become a reality.”

Last month, the project participants met to discuss fast-track solutions for addressing key challenges such as characterizing the behaviour of defects in certain systems, such as colour centres formed in diamond by implanted nitrogen atoms and an adjacent network of atom-sized vacancies, as well as how to control defect engineering in two-dimensional materials such as graphene when using low and medium-energy ions. Their meeting included discussions on testing and refining quantum theories with experimental data to tackle those problems and identify ways to translate theories into new devices.

The four-year project will also further facilitate research across the field by supporting other key research programmes around the world, such as the Quantum Technologies Flagship at the European Union, the National Innovation and Science Agenda in Australia and the National Quantum Initiative in the United States of America, among others. There will also be opportunities for scientific collaboration and training in conjunction with the project, such as the Joint ICTP-IAEA Advanced School on Ion Beam Driven Materials Engineering: Accelerators for a New Technology Era held last October.

The future is quantum

The first quantum revolution transformed the world into the highly connected, technology-driven society we see today. With the second revolution, we can soon expect ultra-high precision clocks, sensors for medical diagnostics, customized drug designs using quantum computers and more sophisticated machine learning.

It will also enable the development of quantum computers that are able to crack problems unsolvable with current methods. These computers use basic units of information called quantum bits or ‘qubits’, which are a more complex and powerful version of the information-carrying ‘bits’ used today in conventional computing.

Prototypes of 10 to 50 qubit computers are already accessible online and being used to develop quantum software for practical applications and for training the next generation of personnel in quantum information technology. Single qubits are also now being used in laboratories as sensors to exploit quantum superposition and entanglement for non-invasive diagnostics at the cellular level.

In anticipation of progress in the field of quantum technology, researchers are already setting up longer-term projects to harness the potential of these new developments, such as a new 10-year project called Q-LEAP to create novel quantum-based sensors for studying processes in the human brain. These sensors could vastly improve the detection of brain functions, such as real-time tracking of human thought, and improve the resolution of medical images. The project will use, among others, the accelerator-based techniques and expertise developed through this IAEA coordinated research project.

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