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Breakthrough in quantum sensing provides new material to make ‘qubits’

For decades now, the world has become increasingly reliant on computers and sensors to do just about everything, and the technologies themselves are getting smaller, faster, and more efficient. Take your smartphone as an example: a pocket-sized piece of mostly aluminum, iron, and lithium that is millions of times more powerful than the computers that guided the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

Advancements in quantum technologies, which deploy the properties of quantum physics, promise to take a step further and revolutionize virtually all of industry and daily life. The result could yield more powerful and energy-efficient devices. But to do so requires that physicists get creative about how they exploit the weird ways atoms interact with each other.

It turns out that atomic defects in certain solid crystals may be key to unleashing the potential of the quantum revolution, according to new discoveries by Northeastern researchers. The defects are essentially irregularities in the way that atoms are arranged to form crystalline structures. Those irregularities could provide the physical conditions to host something called a quantum bit, or qubit for short—a foundational building block for quantum technologies, says Arun Bansil, university distinguished professor in the Department of Physics at Northeastern.

Qubits are fundamentally different from classical computer bits, which are the most basic units of information in computing. But because both are made out of incredibly small material, they are subject to the forces operating in the enigmatic and elusive world of nanoparticles.

Bansil and colleagues found that defects in a certain class of materials, specifically two-dimensional transition metal dichalcogenides, contained the atomic properties conducive to make qubits. Bansil says the findings, which are described in a study published in Nature, amount to something of a breakthrough, particularly in quantum sensing, and may help accelerate the pace of technological change.

“If we can learn how to create qubits in this two-dimensional matrix, that is a big, big deal,” Bansil says.

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