Intel Creates First Cryogenic Control Chip for Quantum ComputingDecember 12, 2019 by Cabe Atwell
Intel’s Horse Ridge chip is expected to speed up the development of commercially viable quantum computers and burn a path to scaling larger systems.
Intel Labs has unveiled a new cryogenic control chip designed to speed up the development of full-stack, commercially-viable quantum computers capable of processing multiple qubits. The company claims that this development will blaze a path toward scaling larger systems.
Controlling Multiple Qubits Simultaneously
Rather than use the traditional binary (ones and zeros) system to process information (like today’s CPUs utilize), quantum platforms take advantage of qubits (quantum bits), which use the spin of an electron or particle in superposition to crunch numbers. This distinction is explored in more detail in our article on the fundamentals of quantum computing.
Qubits are the building blocks of a quantum computer. Image from Intel
Intel states that its Horse Ridge cryogenic control chip is capable of controlling multiple qubits at the same time, significantly speeding up the data-crunching power necessary in building large-scale quantum computers—a major milestone in quantum practicality.
“While there has been a lot of emphasis on the qubits themselves, the ability to control many qubits at the same time had been a challenge for the industry. Intel recognized that quantum controls were an essential piece of the puzzle we needed to solve in order to develop a large-scale commercial quantum system,” stated Intel's director of quantum hardware Jim Clarke.
Qubits can be in multiple states at the same time, rather than just two (one or zero). Intel claims that this opens up innumerable new possibilities for quantum computers. Image from Intel
“That’s why we are investing in quantum error correction and controls. With Horse Ridge, Intel has developed a scalable control system that will allow us to significantly speed up testing and realize the potential of quantum computing.”
FinFET Technology Process
Intel collaborated with engineers from quantum computer research conglomerate QuTech, who helped fabricate the Horse Ridge chip using Intel’s 22nm FinFET technology process, which produces 3D tri-gate transistors down to nanometer scale.
The 22nm FinFET process will allow Intel to fast-track Intel’s ability to R&D a commercially viable quantum computer.
Eliminating Errors from a Freezer
Intel’s advancement in developing quantum computers is a challenging endeavor, considering qubits are notoriously unstable; the superposition state of the electron tends to collapse while processing data at a rapid rate, which leads to errors.
The company feels that if they can apply their wide-spread transistor technology to qubits, they will have an advantage in progressing quantum computing. Image from Intel
To overcome the problem, engineers created redundancies, using a number of qubits and housing them in cryogenically-controlled chambers calibrated at near absolute zero. Microwave pulses were then used to control the qubits within that chamber, which provided a level of stability to process information with little to no errors.
The Horse Ridge Chip
Intel capitalized on this information and designed the Horse Ridge chip to reside in the freezer, thus gaining the ability to garner data without any loss or corruption. This is said to also remove the interconnects (in the hundreds) required for the microwave pulse devices.
The chip is purportedly smaller than those currently in use, which also allows them to better control more than one qubit.
A principal engineer at Intel Labs, Stefano Pellerano, holds Horse Ridge. Image from Intel
The Horse Ridge chip can also be used as a benchmark platform other engineers can use to determine if their system is viable; to this end, Intel provides the software stack needed for development.
Under the hood, the Horse Ridge chip is a mixed-signal SoC (System on Chip) that acts as an RF processor and controls the qubit states within a 4-Kelvin freezer. This is achieved using an instruction program that translates into electromagnetic microwave pulses.
Future Research in Temperature for Quantum Computers
Most quantum computers operate in the millikelvin range or just a fraction of a degree higher than absolute zero (-270°C). However, silicon qubits would allow them to function at higher temperatures (1-Kelvin or more), meaning the required refrigeration process could be simplified for those quantum systems. Intel feels this simplification is possible in future platforms.
Intel feels confident that this breakthrough takes us one step closer to quantum computing, which could, for example, significantly advance medical practices. Image from Intel
The company explains, “As research progresses, Intel aims to have cryogenic controls and silicon spin qubits operate at the same temperature level. This will enable the company to leverage its expertise in advanced packaging and interconnect technologies to create a solution with the qubits and controls in one streamlined package.”