If you want to understand planetary motion, you build a computer simulation that models our solar system. If you want to understand the behaviour of a many-body system with quantum phenomena like entanglement, you need quantum simulation.
That’s where Rajibul Islam, Principal Investigator of the Laboratory for Quantum Information with Trapped Ions (QITI) and assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, comes in. Islam has been at the forefront of experimental research in trapped ions as quantum simulators. He brought that expertise to IQC in 2016, and has since built a lab from the ground up.
Now that he and his group are laser-cooling and trapping ions, Islam is excited to explore and expand the capabilities of this quantum computing platform, potentially clearing a path to a new future of scientific understanding and technological breakthrough.
Trapping an ion—a single, electrically charged atom—requires an ultrahigh vacuum chamber and a whole lot of lasers. Islam and his team take a tiny amount of the rare earth metal Ytterbium and heat it from a solid straight into a gas.The atoms of gas float into a vacuum chamber where lasers ionize and cool them so the electric field between a set of electrodes can trap them. Once trapped, a high-powered ultraviolet laser can manipulate the ions into different states, assign values 0 and 1.
One of the benefits of the ion trap platform is that the atoms are all naturally occurring, free of defects and identical, avoiding some of the challenges of artificial qubits. These ions also have long coherence times, meaning they keep their “quantum-ness” longer than many other systems.
Simulating more complicated quantum systems on chains of trapped ions may allow unprecedented understanding of chemical reactions and interactions in high-energy physics. "These simulations may open up the possibility of answering very fundamental questions that we cannot even begin to approach right now: questions about the Big Bang, matter and antimatter, the specifics of chemical reactions," said Islam.
A deep understanding of what happens at the subatomic level when chemicals interact could allow fine tuning interactions for greater efficiency. “If you think about it, chemical processes are part of our everyday lives: batteries, fertilizers, power generation. Imagine what we could do for society if all these things were made as efficient as possible.”