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By implanting a single atom into a silicon chip, an Australian research team has created the first quantum bit - the unit of data for the quantum computer - a major step towards ultra-powerful quantum computing.

In a landmark paper published today in the journal Nature, the team, including researchers from the University of Melbourne, describe how it was able to both read and write information using the spin of an electron bound to a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon chip.

The work is published today in a landmark paper in the journal Nature.

“For the first time, we have demonstrated the ability to represent and manipulate data on the spin to form a quantum bit, or ‘qubit’, the basic unit of data for a quantum computer,” said Scientia Professor Andrew Dzurak.

“This really is the key advance towards realising a silicon quantum computer based on single atoms.”

Dr Andrea Morello and Professor Dzurak from the UNSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications lead the team. It included researchers from the University of Melbourne and University College, London.

“This is a remarkable scientific achievement – governing nature at its most fundamental level – and has profound implications for quantum computing,” said Dzurak.

Professor David Jamieson, of the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics, led the team that precisely implanted the phosphorous atom into the silicon device. 

“Our team has the unique expertise to implant a single phosphorus atom into the correct location of a nanoscale quantum device,” Professor Jamieson said. 

The world leading technique, enabled the UNSW team to control the quantum mechanical state of the single electron in orbit around the engineered atom.  

“This technique could have wider applications unlocking the potential of smaller classical silicon transistors predicted by Moore’s Law,” he said.

Dr Andrea Morello said that quantum computers promise to solve complex problems that are currently impossible on even the world’s largest supercomputers.

“These include data-intensive problems, such as cracking modern encryption codes, searching databases, and modelling biological molecules and drugs.”

The new finding follows on from a 2010 study also published in Nature, in which the same group demonstrated the ability to read the state of an electron’s spin. Discovering how to write the spin state now completes the two-stage process required to operate a quantum bit.

The new result was achieved by using a microwave field to gain unprecedented control over an electron bound to a single phosphorous atom, which was implanted next to a specially-designed silicon transistor.