A happy accident in the laboratory has led to a breakthrough discovery that not only solved a problem that stood for more than half a century, but has major implications for the development of quantum computers and sensors.In a study published today in Nature, a team of engineers at UNSW Sydney has done what a celebrated scientist first suggested in 1961 was possible, but has eluded everyone since: controlling the nucleus of a single atom using only electric fields.
“This discovery means that we now have a pathway to build quantum computers using single-atom spins without the need for any oscillating magnetic field for their operation,” says UNSW’s Scientia Professor of Quantum Engineering Andrea Morello. “Moreover, we can use these nuclei as exquisitely precise sensors of electric and magnetic fields, or to answer fundamental questions in quantum science.”
That a nuclear spin can be controlled with electric, instead of magnetic fields, has far-reaching consequences. Generating magnetic fields requires large coils and high currents, while the laws of physics dictate that it is difficult to confine magnetic fields to very small spaces—they tend to have a wide area of influence. Electric fields, on the other hand, can be produced at the tip of a tiny electrode, and they fall off very sharply away from the tip. This will make control of individual atoms placed in nanoelectronic devices much easier.
Prof Morello uses the analogy of a billiard table to explain the difference between controlling nuclear spins with magnetic and electric fields.
“Performing magnetic resonance is like trying to move a particular ball on a billiard table by lifting and shaking the whole table,” he says. “We’ll move the intended ball, but we’ll also move all the others.”
After demonstrating the ability to control the nucleus with electric fields, the researchers used sophisticated computer modelling to understand how exactly the electric field influences the spin of the nucleus. This effort highlighted that nuclear electric resonance is a truly local, microscopic phenomenon: the electric field distorts the atomic bonds around the nucleus, causing it to reorient itself.
“This landmark result will open up a treasure trove of discoveries and applications,” says Prof Morello. “The system we created has enough complexity to study how the classical world we experience every day emerges from the quantum realm. Moreover, we can use its quantum complexity to build sensors of electromagnetic fields with vastly improved sensitivity. And all this, in a simple electronic device made in silicon, controlled with small voltages applied to a metal electrode!”