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January 9, 2023

Oxford Ionics bets on mass quantum chip production

The start-up says it has developed a control mechanism for quantum chips similar to that used to build classical semiconductors.

By Ryan Morrison

British quantum computing start-up Oxford Ionics has raised £30m in its Series A funding round, with investors betting on its proprietary electronics system which it says could allow quantum computer processors to be mass-produced at any regular semiconductor facility. The company believes this could enable rapid scaling of quantum processors and a focus on “high quality qubits” with fewer errors.

Quantum Computer chips usually require expensive and hard-to-scale laser control systems but Oxford Ionics created an electronic setup (Photo: Virrage Images/Shutterstock)
Quantum computer chips usually require expensive and hard-to-scale laser control systems but Oxford Ionics created an electronic set-up. (Photo by Virrage Images/Shutterstock)

The aim to develop more efficient and error-free quantum computers more quickly comes as researchers attempt to use the technology to crack encryption, businesses look to solve complex optimisation problems and others look to create hybrid systems using classical and quantum processors.

Oxford Ionics will use the £30m investment to expand, hire more quantum computing specialists and work towards its goal of providing a 100 “useful qubit” machine to clients.

“If you have enough qubits, you can use error correction and all your problems go away,” says Dr Chris Ballance, who co-founded Oxford Ionics with Tom Harty. “It just becomes a problem of building enough qubits.” The issue is that most experts put the point where we have enough qubits a decade or more in the future, so the pair set out to find a way to capitalise on the power of quantum more quickly.

“The money can be made using small amounts of qubits with very low errors,” Dr Ballance says, adding that the company believes the first commercial markets become accessible with a few hundred “useful, really good qubits” in a clean error-corrected system, rather than several thousand.

Oxford Ionics says it has found a way to control trapped ions using similar technology to that found on classical computer chips. Trapped ion technology is one of the most popular approaches to quantum computing, but usually requires expensive lasers to control the atoms. It also doesn’t scale well, making it difficult to move beyond a handful of qubits without significantly increasing the error rate.

The approach taken by the start-up allows for “any of the current semiconductor fabs around the world to manufacture Oxford Ionics chip, at scale, instantly,” Dr Ballance says, which could enable more widespread adoption of the technology.

Achieving electronic qubit control in quantum machines

The company’s processor integrates into semiconductor chips by combining trapped ions with a patented technology known as electronic qubit control (EQC)”. This effectively replaces the laser-based control systems of other trapped-ion processors with the classical computer electronic control mechanisms used on silicon chips.

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Oxford Ionics says this allows it to scale up the number of qubits without leading to significant error rate increase, as is the case with the laser-based chips. The focus on error rate reduction has been demonstrated by the team multiple times, including multiple world records for quantum gate error rates, quantum coherence times and quantum networking performance.

“We’re focused on building technologies that will help quantum computing finish the race, not just take small, incremental steps,” says Dr Ballance. “Our latest round of funding, and the knowledge, insight and expertise of our new investors bring us even closer to this goal.”

Their current best chip has about ten “useful qubits” that outperform higher qubit systems due to the focus on cutting error rates. The aim is to have a demonstration of a 100-qubit system next year and commercially viable quantum computers solving real-world problems in the next three to five years.

“People spend too much time thinking about the physics and the science rather than the engineering,” said Dr Ballance, adding that the “quantum bits are free”, they are single atoms and you “get a lot of atoms for a dollar”, but every qubit needs a way to control it and that is the cost driver. “So going from, say, 1,000 qubits to a million qubits, that’s like a 1,000 times driver and price increase.”

Focus on error rates

Dr Ballance says that building a quantum processor on top of a normal chip allows for a much greater degree of flexibility in production.

“The qubits aren’t built into the chip, which means you don’t need to make the chip perfectly, just good enough,” he says. “It means you can make it out of a range of materials. This is basically what the whole of the classical semiconductor world has been working on over the last 50 years. It’s going from a ‘can draw’ design to ‘I can now make it’ without having to think about the details.”

The first ‘alpha customers’ will begin to get access to the hardware this year, delivered over the cloud as a “quantum-as-a-service” solution, providing a developer interface to remote users from within the Oxford Ionics network.

But the focus is on scaling the technology. “We see the first market opportunities turning on with those 10 to 200-qubit class devices,” says Dr Ballance, adding that is the “roughly useful point” for commercialisation based on the low error rates they expect.

“It’s the point where you start being able to earn revenue doing things that makes a difference to your bottom line rather than earning from consulting money from people,” he told Tech Monitor. “What we’re doing the next couple of years will be engaging with quite a few select customers. But this is very much on a we’re doing this because it teaches us how to build up that muscle [basis].”

The first “money making” opportunities won’t be in cracking RSA or encryption, it will be in optimisation problems for manufacturers and other companies, he adds. “You don’t even need a machine that gets you the right answer all the time. If you have a magic box which tells you the right answer one time in 1,000, but it’s really quick to check if it’s the right answer then that is still valuable,” Dr Ballance says.

Read more: Japan gives Fugaku supercomputer a quantum speed boost

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