The advent of electronic systems that can operate at the level of quantum interactions promises to usher in an era of unprecedented computer processing speed and information storage. Before this revolution can begin, however, scientists need to make the raw materials that will go into this new equipment. This past December, the University of Waterloo opened up a laboratory to do just that.

The new facility, called the Institute for Quantum Computing, will grow thin films much like those found in the current generation of computer microchips or sensor arrays. In order to elicit quantum behaviour, these layered structures will be made out of a much broader range of oxides and metals than those used by today’s semiconductor industry. At the heart of this research endeavour is a $5 million instrument from Germany-based Omicron NanoTechnology, which employs molecular beam epitaxy and sputtering to deposit these materials with the necessary precision.

A sample of quantum materials produced in the new Institute of Quantum Computing laboratory at the University of Waterloo. Photo credit: University of Waterloo

According to David Cory, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing and a Waterloo chemistry professor, if the theoretical promise of quantum computing is going to be realized, researchers must begin working with the appropriate types of building blocks. “New materials are not conventional, so we need to take an unconventional approach to this research,” Cory says. “The Institute for Quantum Computing has made a significant investment in quantum materials science and the most promising direction for building quantum devices is quantum materials.”

Such materials display remarkable qualities at the right temperatures and pressures, including superconductivity, exotic phase transitions and unusual magnetic fields. In fact, the full range of such behaviour is only beginning to be understood. Even so, researchers like Cory can already see profound implications that will emerge from applying these materials to information processing. For example, unlike current technology, which stores data in the form of discrete physical states that behave like familiar everyday objects, quantum data would exist in unique forms that change whenever they are used.