A breakthrough in quantum cooling: How a new material could help advance the US-China tech race

Quantum computing is one of the most promising and competitive fields of technology, with potential applications in cryptography, artificial intelligence, medicine, and more. However, quantum computers require extremely low temperatures to operate, which poses a major challenge for their development and scalability. Now, a Chinese-led team of scientists has discovered a new material that could help create the ultra-low temperatures needed for quantum computing, and possibly give China an edge in the US-China tech war.

Quantum cooling is the process of reducing the thermal noise and vibrations of a system to achieve quantum states, such as superposition and entanglement, that enable quantum computing. Quantum cooling can be achieved by various methods, such as laser cooling, evaporative cooling, or magnetic cooling.

A breakthrough in quantum cooling: How a new material could help advance the US-China tech race
A breakthrough in quantum cooling: How a new material could help advance the US-China tech race

Quantum cooling is important because quantum computers rely on qubits, the basic units of quantum information, that can exist in two states simultaneously, unlike classical bits that can only be either 0 or 1. This allows quantum computers to perform complex calculations much faster and more efficiently than classical computers. However, qubits are very sensitive to external disturbances, such as heat, that can cause them to lose their quantum properties and result in errors. Therefore, quantum computers need to be cooled down to near absolute zero, or -273.15°C, to preserve the qubits and ensure reliable quantum operations.

How does the new material work and what are its advantages?

The new material, called ytterbium nickel phosphide (YbNiP), is a type of quantum magnet that exhibits a phenomenon called the magnetic Grüniesen ratio, which describes the change in magnetization due to a change in pressure. The researchers found that YbNiP has a very large and negative magnetic Grüniesen ratio, which means that applying pressure to the material reduces its magnetization and increases its entropy, or disorder. This, in turn, lowers the temperature of the material and its surroundings, creating a cooling effect.

The advantage of YbNiP is that it can achieve quantum cooling at relatively high temperatures, up to 20 K (-253.15°C), and under moderate pressures, up to 2.5 gigapascals, which are comparable to the conditions inside the Earth’s crust. This makes YbNiP more feasible and practical for quantum cooling than other materials, such as copper oxide, that require much lower temperatures and higher pressures to work. Moreover, YbNiP is composed of abundant and cheap elements, which could lower the cost and increase the availability of quantum cooling devices.

What are the implications of the discovery for the US-China tech war?

The discovery of YbNiP could have significant implications for the US-China tech war, which has been escalating in recent years over the dominance and security of emerging technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. Both countries have invested heavily in quantum research and development, with China launching the world’s first quantum satellite in 2016, and the US passing the National Quantum Initiative Act in 2018. However, both countries also face challenges and limitations in scaling up their quantum capabilities, especially in terms of cooling and power consumption.

The discovery of YbNiP could give China an edge in overcoming some of these challenges and advancing its quantum computing ambitions. According to Professor Wang Haifeng, one of the lead authors of the study, YbNiP could be used to create quantum refrigerators that could cool down quantum chips and devices more efficiently and effectively. This could enable China to develop more powerful and stable quantum computers that could outperform the US and other rivals in various fields and applications.

However, the discovery of YbNiP is not a guarantee of China’s quantum supremacy, as there are still many technical and theoretical hurdles to overcome before quantum computing can reach its full potential. For instance, the researchers have not yet tested YbNiP on actual quantum devices, and they acknowledge that the material may not be suitable for all types of quantum systems. Furthermore, the US and other countries are also working on their own quantum cooling solutions, such as using superconducting materials or nanoscale devices, that could rival or surpass YbNiP. Therefore, the quantum race is still far from over, and the outcome will depend on the innovation and collaboration of the global scientific community.

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