A major hurdle in the ambitious quest to design and construct a radically new kind of quantum computer has been finding a way to manipulate the single electrons that very likely will constitute the new machines' processing components or "qubits."
Princeton University's Jason Petta has discovered how to do just that -- demonstrating a method that alters the properties of a lone electron without disturbing the trillions of electrons in its immediate surroundings. The feat is essential to the development of future varieties of superfast computers with near-limitless capacities for data.
Petta, an assistant professor of physics, has fashioned a new method of trapping one or two electrons in microscopic corrals created by applying voltages to minuscule electrodes. Writing in the Feb. 5 edition of Science, he describes how electrons trapped in these corrals form "spin qubits," quantum versions of classic computer information units known as bits. Other authors on the paper include Art Gossard and Hong Lu at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Previous experiments used a technique in which electrons in a sample were exposed to microwave radiation. However, because it affected all the electrons uniformly, the technique could not be used to manipulate single electrons in spin qubits. It also was slow. Petta's method not only achieves control of single electrons, but it does so extremely rapidly -- in one-billionth of a second.
"If you can take a small enough object like a single electron and isolate it well enough from external perturbations, then it will behave quantum mechanically for a long period of time," said Petta. "All we want is for the electron to just sit there and do what we tell it to do. But the outside world is sort of poking at it, and that process of the outside world poking at it causes it to lose its quantum mechanical nature."