A fridge that’s colder than outer space could take quantum computing to new heights

For most of us, the refrigerator is where we keep our dairy, meat and vegetables. For Ilana Wisby, CEO at Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC), re...

For most of us, the refrigerator is where we keep our dairy, meat and vegetables. For Ilana Wisby, CEO at Oxford Quantum Circuits (OQC), refrigeration means something else entirely.

Her company, operator of the UK’s only commercially available quantum computer, has recently announced a new partnership with Oxford Instruments Nanoscience, a manufacturer of ultra-low temperature refrigerators.

As per the agreement, OQC will be the first to deploy the new Proteox cryo-refrigerator, which reaches temperatures as low as 5-8 millikelvin (circa -273 °C/-460 °F), significantly colder than outer space.

According to Wisby, the arrival of powerful new refrigerators will allow organizations like hers to take quantum computing to new heights, by improving the "quality" of superconducting quantum bits (qubits).

“Quantum effects only happen in really low-energy environments, and energy is temperature. Ultimately, we need to be at incredibly low temperatures, because we’re working at single-digit electron levels,” she explained

“A qubit is an electronic circuit made from aluminum, built with a piece of silicon, which we cool down until it becomes superconducting and then further until single electron effects are happening.”

The colder the system the less “noise and mess” there is, she told TechRadar Pro, because all the other “junk” is frozen out. With the Proteox, then, OQC hopes to be able to scale up the architecture of its quantum machine in a significant way.


The Proteox cryo-refrigerator from Oxford Instruments Nanoscience. (Image credit: Oxford Instruments Nanoscience)

A quantum future

The meaning of quantum computing, let alone its significance, can be difficult to grasp without a background in physics. At the end of our conversation, Wisby herself told us she had found it difficult to balance scientific integrity with the need to communicate the concepts.

But, in short, quantum computers approach problem solving in an entirely different way to classical machines, making use of certain symmetries to speed up processing and allow for far greater scale.

“Quantum computers exploit a number of principles that define how the world works at an atomic level. Superposition, for example, is a principle whereby something can be in two positions at once, like a coin that’s both a head and a tail,” said Wisby.

“Ultimately, that can happen with information as well. We are therefore no longer limited to just ones and zeros, but can have many versions of numbers in between, superimposed.”

Instead of running calculation after calculation in a linear fashion, quantum machines can run them in parallel, optimizing for many more variables - and doing so extremely quickly.

Advances in the field, which is really still only in its nascent stages, are expected to have a major impact on areas such as drug discovery, logistics, finance, cybersecurity and almost any other market that needs to process massive volumes of information.

Tipping point

Quantum computers in operation today, however, can not yet consistently outperform classical supercomputers. There are also very few quantum computing resources available for businesses to utilize; OQC has only a small pool of rivals worldwide in this regard.

The most famous milestone held aloft as a marker of progress is that of quantum supremacy, the point at which quantum computers are able to solve problems that would take classical machines an infeasible amount of time.

In October 2019, Google announced it was the first company to reach this landmark, performing a task with its Sycamore prototype in 200 seconds that would take another machine 10,000 years.

But the claim was very publicly contested by IBM, which dialled up its Summit supercomputer (previously the world’s fastest) to prove it was capable of processing the same workload in roughly two and a half days.

Although the quantum supremacy landmark remains disputed, and quantum computers have not yet been responsible for any major scientific discoveries, Wisby is bullish about the industry’s near-term prospects.

“We’re not there yet, but we will be very soon. We’re at a tipping point after which we should start to see discoveries and applications that were fundamentally impossible before, realistically in the next three years.”

“In pharma, that might mean understanding specific molecules, even better understanding water. We hope to see customers working on new drugs that have been enabled by a quantum computer, at least partially, in the not too distant future.”

The challenge facing organizations working to push quantum computing to the next level is balancing quality, scale and control. Currently, as quantum systems are scaled and an appropriate level of control asserted, the quality decreases and information is lost.

“Achieving all these things in parallel is what’s going to unlock a quantum-enabled future,” says Wisby.

There is work to be done, in other words, before quantum fulfils its potential. But steps forward in the ability to fabricate superconducting devices at scale and developments in areas such as refrigeration are setting the stage.

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