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'We're hitting new limits.' North Carolina quantum computing bullish on a coveted breakthrough

Brian Gordon, The News & Observer on

Published in Science & Technology News

When Jungsang Kim came to Duke University in 2004, he wasn’t sure he’d live long enough to witness quantum advantage: the elusive moment when a quantum computer outperforms a classical computer to solve a real-world problem.

Back then, the emerging field was more theoretical. The experimental building blocks existed; scientists had already demonstrated atomic physics could be harnessed for computations, but no one had made machines capable of complex, multi-step calculations.

That’s no longer the case. Quantum advantage remains a dream, but Kim, a researcher and cofounder of the publicly traded quantum company IonQ, more firmly believes he’ll be around for the breakthrough.

“I think they’re really starting to bring a lot of these near-term quantum applications into sight,” he said. “I’m actually starting to be more convinced that something can happen in the next few years.”

The Triangle is positioned to play a significant role in this pursuit — however long it takes.

Inside the Chesterfield building in downtown Durham, the Duke Quantum Center partners with IonQ to develop one of the two leading types of quantum machines. Known as ion-trap, the device levitates an array of atoms above gold-plated processing chips in an airless vacuum.

 

In exchange for exclusive rights to the intellectual property produced at the Duke lab, IonQ gave the university equity in the Maryland-based company that went public in 2021 and currently has a market capitalization above $2.6 billion. Since last year, IonQ has sold its first four full ion-trap quantum systems, CEO Peter Chapman told investors on Nov. 8.

Companies, schools, even the U.S. Army have poured resources into studying quantum computing, lured by the technologies’ immense potential on a wide range of industries like finance, logistics, cybersecurity and biochemistry. If their potential is ever met, these machines promise exponentially greater computational powers, handling tasks in minutes that would take today’s classical computers years (if ever) to complete.

Superconductors, the other prominent approach to quantum computing, are the focus of North Carolina State University and its partner corporation, IBM. Nicknamed “chandeliers,” IBM’s machines are gold-plated, multi-level apparatuses with a progression of wires and tubes funneling down to single silicon processor chips. While Duke has ion-trap computers in the Triangle, NC State researchers remotely access the chandeliers, which are housed at the IBM facility in Yorktown Heights, New York.

“Each technology kind of has its strength,” said Daniel Stancil, executive director of the IBM Quantum Hub at NC State. “I think there have been some significant developments in the hardware in the past year.”

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