Scientists hatch quantum-computer building blocks

Science merged with science fiction Thursday as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced it has successfully paired the first ion traps, creating the building blocks for quantum computing, according to NIST representatives.

Unlike current transistor-based computing architectures, the NIST's quantum computing architecture uses ions -- electrically charged atoms -- held in electromagnetic traps and interacting with one another to create computational signaling, according to the NIST.

Where transistors can only register their function in the "on" or "off" mode, represented by the binary language of ones and zeros, atoms within a quantum computer can work in several different states simultaneously, allowing such an architecture to potentially process an exponentially higher amount of data than a transistor-based computer, according to the NIST.

The NIST has successfully paired two ion traps, separated by a mere 1.2mm, at the organization's Boulder, Colo., labs. The NIST reports that the experimental ion traps have remained stable, suggesting that a larger quantum computer could be build upon such an architecture.

"However, manipulating a large number of ions in a single trap presents immense technical difficulties, and scaling arguments suggest that this scheme is limited to computations on tens of ions," according to a statement issued by the NIST.

No indication was given as to when possible commercial applications of quantum computing might emerge.

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