Brrr: The chilly conditions that quantum computers need to run


The quantum computers that Lockheed Martin and Google (s GOOG) are buying — and that startup D-Wave is building — have some pretty extreme operating conditions: they need to run at near zero temperatures for the quantum effects to work.

Investor Steve Jurvetson next to a pulse fridge that cools a D-Wave quantum computer

Investor Steve Jurvetson next to a pulse fridge that cools a D-Wave quantum computer

As you can see in this photo from venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, D-Wave uses a pulse fridge to cool the quantum computer to .02 degrees above absolute zero, and they use Helium-3 in the cooling process.

Quantum computers use a different type of processing compared to traditional computing. As GigaOM’s Jordan Novet explained it earlier this year, “rather than working with binary yes-or-no questions — ones and zeros — quantum computing is more probabilistic, also allowing a combination of zero and one to simultaneously answer many questions with quantum bits of information, or qubits, and tell users more about the likelihood of a situation. It’s not necessarily useful for all kinds of computing, but it could solve problems that current computers can’t.”

Keeping quantum computers that can perform such functions cool can be a tricky process. It’s highly energy intensive and can get expensive. But if the quantum computers are not cooled down, the molecules — which are being manipulated to store data — move around chaotically and can’t be manipulated and read.

Earlier this year physicists at UCLA developed a new cooling process that immerses charged barium chloride molecules into a super cold cloud of calcium atoms. That research is being funded by the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.


James Alexander Rehman

Didn’t someone, well over a year ago, make a huge breakthrough that made it possible to have quantum computing in room temperature conditions? I think they had, and I think this article is moot. Google: quantum computing room temperature

David Mayes

The most important “take away” from this post is not the difficulty of achieving the necessary temperatures. The key point should be, that quantum computing is a Big Idea that is becoming reality. Companies like first mover D-Wave and its investors are taking risks, proving skeptics wrong, and commercializing their technology with real dollars from real customers. The article goes on to say that other researchers are working on the cooling challenge. This is how Big Ideas take shape. .

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