A big home for small science

A big home for small science

New one-of-a-kind research centre builds on the University of Waterloo’s reputation as an international leader in quantum and nano science
September 20, 2012

Take one look at the honeycomb facade of the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre at the University of Waterloo, and you get a sense that the place will be a hive of activity.

Indeed, the 285,000-square-foot facility, which opened September 21, will be buzzing with 50 researchers, more than 100 graduate students and some 500 undergraduates. Together, these bright minds will conduct the kind of research for which the university has already become world famous — such as research that aims to replace the traditional silicon-based computer with a cutting-edge quantum computer.

Although still on the drawing board, quantum computers hold promise as the new frontier of superfast computing power. Quantum computers rely on quantum physics and atomic and subatomic particles to create computing power that is much more advanced than the bits and bytes and semiconductors used in today’s computers. Many physicists and computer scientists believe that quantum computers capable of processing vast amounts of data at extremely high speeds could be developed within the next decade. However, working in the quantum and nano realm is tricky business, so structural stability and temperature control had to be carefully considered in the design of the new Centre.

“You have to design an entire building where one atom won’t accidentally bump into another,” says Raymond Laflamme, executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) which, along with the Institute for Nanotechnology and the Nanotechnology Engineering program, is moving into the Centre. This is a mighty task when the distance between atoms is only about 1/50,000th the width of a human hair.

And things are anything but stable in the quantum computing universe. Quantum computers store information in quantum bits — or “qubits” — instead of silicon-based transistors. Quantum physics has shown that these atomic and sub-atomic particles, such as electrons and photons, can exist in two states simultaneously. So instead of coding for a 0 or 1 — the basis of today’s computer algorithms — a qubit could code for both at once, resulting in an exponential increase in computational power.

A 12-qubit processor created at IQC could, theoretically, do 4,056 simultaneous calculations, and Laflamme says a 50-qubit machine could accomplish tasks impossible for today’s top supercomputer. Quantum computers could have applications ranging from cryptography, chemistry and computer science to fundamental quantum physics and mathematics. Quantum computers could have the computational capacity to break the most sophisticated codes ever devised. But there’s a flip-side too: cryptography based on quantum science promises codes that are unbreakable by even a powerful quantum computer.

However, even the tiniest bump “can put you off track when you are trying to store information in an atom,” says Laflamme. The labs in the Quantum-Nano Centre, named for the Research In Motion founder and his wife, and partially funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, are below grade to minimize vibrations. Temperature fluctuations and electromagnetic radiation, which could destabilize atoms, are also carefully controlled.

The race to develop quantum computers is partially driven by the seemingly inevitable end of Moore’s Law. Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the law states that the number of transistors on a circuit board doubles every two years, thus doubling computing power. This transistor revolution has powered a tide of cheaper and faster computers, cell phones, cameras, and electronics of all sorts. But there is a limit to how small a transistor can get.

“Moore’s Law ends when a transistor is the size of an atom,” says Laflamme. He hopes that once this threshold is reached, a workable quantum computer will not simply reproduce Moore’s Law, but will instead zoom right by it.      

(Photo credit: Peter Kovacs, Institute for Quantum Computing)