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Quantum Computer Breakthrough? 'Ion-Crystal' Points To Vast Increase In Processing Power, Scientists Say

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In this photo of the ion-crystal device, each blue dot represents an atom.
In this photo of the ion-crystal device, each blue dot represents an atom.

Talk about a quantum leap. Scientists say they've developed a tiny device that may hold the key to the development of quantum computers vastly more powerful than the best computers now in existence.

Composed of about 300 atoms suspended in space, the "ion-crystal" device "has the potential to be the most powerful computer ever developed, beating the computational capacity of any existing machine by 1080 times," Dr. Michael J. Biercuk, a University of Sydney physicist who co-authored a new study describing the device, told The Huffington Post in an email.

Not familiar with scientific notation? 1080 is a 1 followed by 80 zeros. That suggests a really, really powerful computer. Just how powerful?

"A conventional supercomputer attempting to match the computational potential of our system would have to be the size of the entire known universe," Biercuk said.

"It's a very cool and sophisticated experiment, but not yet a universal computing machine," Dr. Charles M. Marcus, an expert on quantum computing research , told The Huffington Post in an email. "Admirable research, and a step forward, for sure." Dr. Marcus, formerly of Harvard University, is now director of the Center for Quantum Devices at the University of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute.

Quantum computers process data differently than conventional computers. Instead of transistors, they rely on the weird world of quantum mechanics--in which data processing involves not conventional computer bits but particles called quantum bits or "qubits."

Quantum computers of the sort Biercuk envisions certainly sound amazing. But don't expect to pick one up at your local big box store anytime soon. The machines are "some decades away from seeing broad use," Biercuk said in the email, adding that they are likely to be useful primarily for complicated problems in scientific fields, including biology, chemistry, materials science, and code-breaking.

Biercuk said the idea of "general purpose" quantum computers was unrealistic. "No quantum Facebook," he joked.

Want to know more about the study? Watch this Australian TV interview with Biercuk. Or, if you're feeling smart, you can read Dr. Biercuk's paper, Engineered two-dimensional Ising interactions in a trapped-ion quantum simulator with hundreds of spins, in the April 26, 2012 issue of the journal "Nature."

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