World-first atomic-scale integrated circuit to commercial reality

A deliberate focus on in-house production and teamwork will be critical in bringing a world-first atomic-scale integrated circuit to commercial reality, and doing it in Australia, say the team behind the breakthrough.

The Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC) team, led by 2018 Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Simmons, has had their work published in the prestige journal Nature in June this year.

In it, they described building an integrated circuit of 10 precision engineered quantum dots in silicon with source, drain and control electrodes with sub-nanometer precision accuracy to mimic both single and double carbon-carbon bonds in an organic molecule – proving that this could be used to simulate the behaviour of polyacetylene, paving the way to simulate other chemicals and even create new ones.

“It’s been 20 years, the development of these fabrication processes, and one of the wonderful things about the recent Nature publication was essentially that brought all of those fabrication processes together into a single device and proved that the technology works,” says Benjamin Matthewson, General Manager at SQC.

Matthewson has been working with Michelle Simmons since 2012, the year she led a UNSW team that fabricated the world’s first single-atom transistor – this being one in a long list of achievements in engineering quantum systems for quantum computing.

For more than two decades, Simmons has led Australian work to build a quantum computer based on phosphorus atoms in silicon, creating a collection of production technologies to bring this innovation from theory to physical reality along the way. Her team leads the world in the phosphorus-in-silicon approach, described by MIT Technology Review in 2013 as “almost an obsession in Australia”.

Work to create a prototype ten-qubit circuit (arrival time is planned for 2023) based on precision engineered phosphorus atoms in silicon continues in parallel with the analogue quantum processor recently reported for quantum simulations.

SQC’s devices are being scaled up to achieve greater complexity in what they can simulate as the number of phosphorus quantum dots increases, and SQC intends to have a commercial product available within five years.

Essential to the R&D programs are collaborations with suppliers and potential clients, as well as being able to perform the exquisitely complex, atom-level fabrication in-house.

While electronics and semiconductor industries are famously spread across many companies with production regularly outsourced by an OEM, SQC is particular about keeping production in-house as a competitive advantage.

“Given that we are still in development stage, and pushing the bounds of human knowledge, the chip we have made was made wholly at the facilities at SQC and UNSW Sydney,” explains Matthewson.

“From the outset, our ambition and goal are to manufacture wholly in Australia. We’re not anticipating making billions of these devices, like phones. At this stage of development in quantum computing globally we offer a high quality, high-value, relatively low-throughput product, and therefore we see it as being absolutely realistic to do this completely within the Australian ecosystem.

“Also, we have extreme control and visibility over all of our processes, and furthermore that we can turn around a new device within a matter of weeks.”

Another goal from the beginning has been to work with industrial partners to develop real-world solutions based on the emerging technology. Early backers of SQC include Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank, in which communications and cybersecurity are two obvious industries set to be reshaped through quantum computing.

“We have relationships with users, but really want to ramp that up, and so the publication that came out in Nature was a key milestone drop moving into the next phase of the company’s lifecycle,” adds Matthewson.

He adds that the company specialises in one thing, and as any innovator must, they need to listen to current and potential customers to help focus the technical program.

The integrated circuit breakthrough opens possibilities in complex simulation, perhaps around development of new materials, modelling, and better understanding of current ones, for example the types of 2D materials such as graphene or organic photovoltaics.

“One side of it is scaling up the devices to address how certain materials function, and then the question is ‘what are you going to build? A model of what? It is better to be asked to build devices for a particular purpose,” says Matthewson.

“So to engage with a chemical company or a materials company, who has specific materials they are developing would be really useful.”

Among SQC’s Australian supply chain collaborators is Silex, which it has partnered with on R&D since 2019. Silex is a high-tech Sydney-based company with laser enrichment technology used for nuclear industry clients which it has adapted to create SQC’s specialised silicon.

Generally speaking, the more complex an industry, the more collaboration with outside partners matters. It is hard to think of anything more complex than realising the dream of developing working quantum computers, sometimes referred to as this century’s space race.

The transformative power of computing’s next era is not lost on governments around the world. According to a World Economic Forum report released in January, governments invested $US 25 billion in research on the subject in 2021, more than the previous three years combined.

To continue to be globally relevant as quantum technologies move from labs into factories, workplaces, and daily life, Australian researchers, companies, and others will need to work together.

“We’re going to need electronics. We’re going to need cryogenic cooling systems. We’re going to need specialised materials and gases,” says Matthewson.

“We’re going to need all of these things in order to be able to operate from here. And so, therefore, we are interested in developing an ecosystem throughout that supply chain.”