It's a challenge that's long been one of the holy grails of quantum computing: how to create the key building blocks known as quantum bits, or qubits, that exist in a solid-state system at room temperature.
Most current systems, by comparison, rely on complex and expensive equipment designed to trap a single atom or electron in a vacuum and then cool the entire system to close to absolute zero.
A group of Harvard scientists, led by Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and including graduate students Georg Kucsko and Peter Maurer and postdoctoral researcher Christian Latta, say they've cracked the problem, and they did it by turning to one of the purest materials on Earth: diamonds.
Using a pair of impurities in ultra-pure, laboratory-grown diamonds, the researchers were able to create quantum bits and store information in them for nearly two seconds, an increase of nearly six orders of magnitude over the life span of earlier systems.
The work is a critical first step in the eventual construction of a functional quantum computer, and has a host of other potential applications.
"What we've been able to achieve in terms of control is quite unprecedented," Lukin said.
"We have a qubit, at room temperature, that we can measure with very high efficiency and fidelity. We can encode data in it, and we can store it for a relatively long time. We believe this work is limited only by technical issues, so it looks feasible to increase the life span into the range of hours. At that point, a host of real-world applications become possible," he stated.
In addition to a practical quantum computer, Lukin envisions the system being used in applications that include "quantum cash" (a payment system for bank transactions and credit cards that relies on the coding of quantum bits to thwart counterfeiters) and quantum networks (a highly secure communications method that uses quantum bits to transmit data).
"This research is an important step forward in research toward one day building a practical quantum computer. For the first time, we have a system that has a reasonable timescale for memory and simplicity, so this is now something we can pursue," said Kucsko, who works in Lukin's lab and is one of two first authors of the paper.
The work was described in the June 8 issue of Science.