SYDNEY - An Australian-led research team said Thursday they had made a technological breakthrough in the race for a quantum supercomputer that could revolutionise data encryption and medicine.
Engineers from Sydney's University of New South Wales said they had created the first working quantum bit or qubit -- the fundamental unit of a quantum supercomputer -- with the findings published in the latest edition of Nature.
Lead researcher Andrew Dzurak said the team used a microwave field to gain unprecedented control over en electron bound to a single phosphorous atom that was implanted in a silicon transistor device.
They were able to both write and read information using the electron's spin, or magnetic orientation, which Dzurak said was a "key advance towards realising a silicon quantum computer based on single atoms".
"This is a remarkable scientific achievement, governing nature at its most fundamental level, and has profound implications for quantum computing," Dzurak said.
Quantum computing, the next generation in information technology, harnesses the power of atoms and molecules to perform calculations and store data, with the potential to be millions of times more powerful than the most advanced modern computers.
Dzurak's research partner Andrea Morello said quantum computers, which could run one million parallel computations at once compared with a desktop PC's single-computation capacity, could do things that were currently impossible.
"These include data-intensive problems, such as cracking modern encryption codes, searching databases, and modelling biological molecules and drugs," he said.
Morello said the study was significant because it was the first time silicon had been used -- a well understood and easily accessed material.
"Our technology is fundamentally the same as is already being used in countless everyday electronic devices, and that's a trillion-dollar industry," he said.
The next step is to combine qubit pairs into a "logic gate", which would be the basic processing unit of a quantum computer, a fully functioning model of which is likely still to be five to 10 years off.
The research is being funded by the Australian government, the US Army, the New South Wales state government, the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne.