Connecting the dots between material properties and qubit performance

Engineers and materials scientists studying superconducting quantum information bits (qubits)—a leading quantum computing material platform based on the frictionless flow of paired electrons—have collected clues hinting at the microscopic sources of qubit information loss. This loss is one of the major obstacles in realizing quantum computers capable of stringing together millions of qubits to run demanding computations. Such large-scale, fault-tolerant systems could simulate complicated molecules for drug development, accelerate the discovery of new materials for clean energy, and perform other tasks that would be impossible or take an impractical amount of time (millions of years) for today’s most powerful supercomputers.

An understanding of the nature of atomic-scale defects that contribute to qubit information loss is still largely lacking. The team helped bridge this gap between material properties and qubit performance by using state-of-the-art characterization capabilities at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) and National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), both U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facilities at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Their results pinpointed structural and surface chemistry defects in superconducting niobium qubits that may be causing loss. 

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Image: Scientists performed transmission electron microscopy and x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) at Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials and National Synchrotron Light Source II to characterize the properties of niobium thin films made into superconducting qubit devices at Princeton University. A transmission electron microscope image of one of these films is shown in the background; overlaid on this image are XPS spectra (colored lines representing the relative concentrations of niobium metal and various niobium oxides as a function of film depth) and an illustration of a qubit device. Through these and other microscopy and spectroscopy studies, the team identified atomic-scale structural and surface chemistry defects that may be causing loss of quantum information—a hurdle to enabling practical quantum computers.

Disorder brings out quantum physical talents

Quantum effects are most noticeable at extremely low temperatures, which limits their usefulness for technical applications. Thin films of MnSb2Te4, however, show new talents due to a small excess of manganese. Apparently, the resulting disorder provides spectacular properties: The material proves to be a topological insulator and is ferromagnetic up to comparatively high temperatures of 50 Kelvin, measurements at BESSY II show.  This makes this class of material suitable for quantum bits, but also for spintronics in general or applications in high-precision metrology.

Quantum effects such as the anomalous quantum Hall effect enable sensors of highest sensitivity, are the basis for spintronic components in future information technologies and also for qubits in quantum computers of the future. However, as a rule, the quantum effects relevant for this only show up clearly enough to make use of them at very low temperatures near absolute zero and in special material systems.

Read more on the HZB website

Image: The Dirac cone is typical for topological insulators and is practically unchanged on all 6 images (ARPES measurements at BESSY II). The blue arrow additionally shows the valence electrons in the volume. The synchrotron light probes both and can thus distinguish the Dirac cone at the surface (electrically conducting) from the three-dimensional volume (insulating).

Credit: © HZB