Atomic 'Swiss Army Knife' Developed for Precise Material Measurement for Quantum Computers

The three-in-one device could prove invaluable for the future development of quantum computers.
Chris Young

Scientists have developed a novel instrument that can make three different atom-scale measurements simultaneously.

The device will help researchers to make new findings about the properties of special materials that are crucial for developing the next generation of quantum computers.

In doing so, they hope to get us one step closer to the much-hyped revolution in computing brought on by quantum computers and devices.


Precise atom-scale measurements

The new technology, developed by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is able to image single atoms, map atomic-scale hills and valleys on metal and insulating surfaces, and record the flow of current across atom-thin materials subject to giant magnetic fields. What's more, it can do all of this at the same time.

Atomic 'Swiss Army Knife' Developed for Precise Material Measurement for Quantum Computers
An atomic force image of an aluminum sample showing the arrangement of atoms measured at 0.01 Kelvin (-459.65 degree Fahrenheit). The red curve shows the aluminum film is superconducting, Source: NSIT

The Swiss Army knife of sorts for atom-scale measurements was developed by NIST researcher Joseph Stroscio and his colleagues, including Johannes Schwenk and Sungmin Kim. The team recently presented a detailed paper on building the device for the Review of Scientific Instruments.

"We describe a blueprint for other people to copy," Stroscio said in a press release. "They can modify the instruments they have; they don't have to buy new equipment."

Crucial for the future of quantum computing

As it can simultaneously conduct measurements on scales ranging from nanometers to millimeters, the instrument can help researchers precisely analyze the atomic origins of several unusual properties in materials that may prove to be crucial for a new generation of computers and communication devices.

"By connecting the atomic with the large scale, we can characterize materials in a way that we couldn't before," said Stroscio.

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The instrument incorporates a trio of precision measuring devices. These include an atomic force microscope (AFM), a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), both of which allow researchers to examine microscopic properties of solids. The third tool is used to record the macroscopic property of magnetic transport — which is the flow of current in the presence of a magnetic field.

"No single type of measurement provides all the answers for understanding quantum materials," NIST researcher Nikolai Zhitenev explained. "This device, with multiple measuring tools, provides a more comprehensive picture of these materials."

Building a three-in-one device

In order to build the instrument, the NIST team designed more compact versions of existing AFM and magnetic-transport-measuring devices. They then integrated the tools with an existing STM.

The separate pieces are mounted inside a cryostat, a device that chills the system to one-hundredth of a degree above absolute zero. This minimizes the random quantum jitter of atomic particles at the same time large-scale quantum effects more pronounced and easier to measure.

Atomic 'Swiss Army Knife' Developed for Precise Material Measurement for Quantum Computers
Photo of a sample inside the scanning probe module showing the eight electrical contacts to a plate containing the sample to be studied, Source: NSIT

The three-in-one device, which is shielded from external electrical noise, is five to 10 times more sensitive than any previous set of similar instruments, the researchers say.

The team, Stroscio explains, had been struggling for years to dramatically reduce the electrical noise in the measurements of their device:

"We have now achieved the ultimate resolution given by thermal and quantum limits in this new instrument," Stroscio said.

"This feels like I've climbed the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains," he added. "It's a nice synthesis of everything I've learned over the last 30-plus years."

With many believing a quantum computing revolution is on the horizon, tools like these will likely play a large part in creating the machines that will power the future.

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