Australian firm Archer Exploration Limited has claimed a significant advance towards building a quantum computer that can operate outside of the laboratory.

The breakthrough came as the research organisation found a way to position a single carbon-based qubit, just 50 nanometres across, onto a silicon wafer with extreme accuracy.

“This level of positional accuracy and control is required to build a working prototype,” the firm noted in announcing the breakthrough, which it said was repeatable and would allow the positioning of multiple qubits within its 12CQ quantum processor.

A qubit is the fundamental building block of quantum computers, which promise unthinkably fast computational speeds by harnessing the unusual characteristics of quantum physics.

To date, quantum-computing setups have required the support of supercooling infrastructure that makes them inaccessible outside of carefully designed laboratories.

One of the core goals of the 12CQ project, which kicked off earlier this year, is to enable quantum computing at room temperature – allowing quantum computers to be distributed en masse.

Pushing forward the state of the art

Delivery of a room-temperature quantum computer would be a massive boost for the industry, which has been developing quickly thanks to considerable investments in Australia and overseas.

UNSW Professor Michelle Simmons, who was named as 2018 Australian of the Year, has been driving another effort that recently developed the fastest-ever 2-qubit logic gate.

This allowed an operation to be completed in just 0.8 nanoseconds – some 200 times faster than other, similar setups.

That team is planning to build a 10-qubit integrated circuit within four years, putting it in friendly competition with the team at Archer and other quantum-focused research institutions.

The room-temperature qubit “further strengthens our commercial readiness,” Archer CEO Dr Mohammad Choucair said, “as we’ve met a key milestone in derisking and progressing the chip technology development.”

“It is incredibly difficult to apply such a high degree of precision in controlling qubit location,” he added, “but the process overcomes the key technological barrier of demonstrating the possibility of qubit scalability in the fabrication of a working chip prototype.”

Building blocks for a revolution

The prototype is a ‘minimum viable product’ that will support the further creation of highly scalable quantum processors – and their integration with existing conventional technologies.

This integration would speed the incorporation of quantum processors – whose significant computing capability is expected to revolutionise everything from data encryption to complex mathematical modelling – into existing computing setups.

Working within the University of Sydney’s $150m Sydney Nanoscience Hub facility, Archer’s team is leaning hard on an exclusive patent agreement and the skills of quantum pioneers like Dr Martin Fuechsle, a mentee of Prof Simmons who previously worked on the team that in 2012 built the world’s smallest transistor.

The firm’s long-term plan is to build repeatable quantum chips that can be sold or licensed to major microprocessor manufacturers or equipment integrators.

It’s a common goal for the many companies racing to mature quantum-computing designs – and stake a market that Allied Market Research expects will grow by 31.7 per cent year-on-year through 2025, when it will be worth $US5.9 billion ($A8.7b) globally.

Earlier this year, current industry leader IBM unveiled the largest quantum computer, a 20-qubit system called the IBM Q System One that must be kept at temperatures just a hair above absolute zero.