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.