British quantum computing start-up Universal Quantum has won the largest government contract for quantum computing to date. Worth €67m, the deal will see the company create one single chip and later a multi-chip scalable quantum computer for the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Hamburg.
The two-part deal will first see the German arm of the company build a single chip ‘trapped ion’ quantum computer, one of the most mature solutions for using quantum states for processing data, in Hamburg. This will be made available over a private cloud platform and housed at the DLR facilities.
Ion trap systems allow universal arithmetic operations and are not dedicated to solving specific tasks, making them more viable as generic research machines. The qubits are also relatively stable compared to other quantum computing systems and come with high fidelity, or reliability, a key metric alongside the number of qubits.
The second part of the deal will see the company build towards a 100-qubit scalable machine. This involves technology developed by Universal Quantum that allows for quantum processors to be stitched together in a modular way, making it easier to rapidly increase qubit numbers.
Universal Quantum has four years to get to 100 qubits, according to CEO Sebastian Weidt, and the multi-chip machine will be built around the same processor developed for the first computer, which he describes as the “most powerful chip ever developed for a quantum computer.”
Known as UQ Connect, the link technology developed by Universal Quantum is based on transporting ion qubits between the modules with high fidelity of connection.
“The beautiful thing here is that you can just stitch more and more together which significantly increases the qubit numbers and what we expect to see, after the couple of machines we are building here, is that we can dramatically increase qubit numbers,” Weidt says. “This is to demonstrate things work the way they should and then you just keep adding more modules to increase the number of qubits.”
Millions of qubits required for quantum computing excellence
Weidt told Tech Monitor that for quantum computing to truly improve and change society, machines with millions of qubits will be needed. That is the point where error rates are low and they can solve the most complex problems known today, as well as those not yet considered.
“Error correction is the key for quantum computing and one of the deliverables we have in this contract is to deliver a machine that can do error correction," he explains. "We want to jump to the point where we can operate fault tolerantly in the long term and unlock these applications.
“There is a route to get there but that is still work that needs to be done and that is what we can do with these machines, to find out what we can do before error correction kicks in on a grander scale.”
Error correction on these early machines can allow researchers to gradually improve the quantum computers as they add more qubits, making adjustments in response to how effectively errors are corrected.
Germany's quantum computer: a modular approach for scale-up
The modular approach taken by Universal Quantum means only moderate cooling is needed, down to about -203 degrees Celsius. By comparison, IBM houses its quantum computers in a giant fridge that reaches -248 degrees Celsius, others are even colder, approaching absolute zero.
The ‘working prototype’ quantum computers being developed and built in Germany will be made available to researchers working at DLR and its partners to allow them to develop real-world applications that can be scaled up over time, Universal Quantum claims. This will include testing new concepts for software development and building new ‘in-house’ skills.
“It isn’t just the number of qubits, it is the fidelity of operation you can achieve, and if you look at the deliverables of this work it requires us to create a world-leading machine. But fidelity and qubits aren’t enough as you need a route to large scale high fidelity qubits,” says Weidt. “This customer wanted high fidelity, lots of qubits but on a platform that scales."
With the modular platform designed by Weidt and his colleagues, they hope to be able to reach exponential growth in qubit. “Once we have a machine with 100 qubits it is just a case of making another module and stick it on. We are working towards exponential qubit scaling going forward.”
Germany is the second European country to invest in Universal Quantum technology. The company is also leading a UK government-supported project that also involved Rolls-Royce, with a focus on building a quantum computer able to make fuel-efficient turbines for aviation.
Quantum computing; a tech investment in the future
Rolls-Royce is heavily invested in quantum computing, including a recent project to use software designed by Classiq Quantum for modelling fluid dynamics for better airflow and fuel usage. Head of quantum for the company, Leigh Lapworth, told Tech Monitor last month that quantum will play an important part in its journey to net zero carbon emissions.
“The potential of quantum computers to drastically reduce simulation run-times cannot be ignored and the work we’re doing today ensures we will have the capabilities to benefit from quantum advantage when it arrives,” Lapworth said.
Contracts from countries like Germany and the UK, as well as large companies like Rolls-Royce “move the needle of quantum computing” towards becoming useful to society, argues Weidt. "This is a huge validation of how unique and promising our technology is, and represents a major step forward in our mission to build quantum computers that will help enable people to solve the biggest challenges humanity is facing," he adds. "We are looking forward to expanding our technology into new markets, building on our recent successes with partners that share our values."
Co-founder of Universal Quantum, Winfried Hensinger, described the DLR contract as an important milestone and further recognition that will spur the company on to the next stage. "Key to our technical concept is the inherent scalability of the quantum computers we are building. Our mission is to solve many fundamental problems of our time - this is the next step along the way," he says.
Funding for the DLR quantum computer project came from the Research and Economics Ministries in the German government, the largest single investment ever made by an EU government for research into this technology.