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Purdue's Michael Manfra
Professor Michael Manfra heads Station Q Purdue, which is part of Microsoft’s campaign to create a topological quantum computer. (Purdue University Photo / Rebecca Wilcox)

Microsoft’s big bet to build a usable quantum computer based on two-dimensional quasiparticles just got bigger.

Purdue University says it has signed a five-year agreement with Microsoft to expand its role in an international quantum computing collaboration known as Station Q.

Microsoft announced last November that it was moving ahead with its Station Q campaign to build a working computer. The consortium now extends to Purdue as well as TU Delft in the Netherlands, the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, the University of Sydney in Australia, ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the University of Maryland.

Purdue has been working with Microsoft on quantum computing for more than a year, but the newly signed agreement deepens the connections at Station Q Purdue.

“What’s exciting is that we’re doing the science and engineering hand-in-hand, at the same time,” Professor Michael Manfra, director of Station Q Purdue, said today in a news release. “We are lucky to be part of this truly amazing global team.”

Microsoft is one of several high-tech heavyweights that are laying bets on quantum computing technology. Google, IBM and Intel are also part of the quest.

In March, IBM unveiled plans to build a breed of quantum devices that could be used for cloud computing. This month, Canada-based D-Wave Systems announced that it’s received $30 million in new funding for its quantum computer development effort, with the potential for $20 million more.

Why quantum? Classical computing is based on the manipulation of well-defined bits, either ones and zeros, but quantum computing takes a radically different approach. It relies on fuzzy computational systems that can represent ones and zeros simultaneously, in a state known as superposition.

Theorists say quantum computers would be far better suited for solving particular categories of problems, such as cryptography, cryptoanalysis and secure communications as well as computer modeling for molecular interactions and climate change.

However, working with the quantum world poses challenges. For example, it’s difficult to keep a system of interconnected quantum bits, or qubits, stable enough for useful computation. Outside interference tends to push the qubits out of superposition prematurely.

Microsoft and its Station Q collaborators aim to address that particular challenge with an approach known as scalable topological quantum computing.

“Topological quantum computing utilizes qubits that store information ‘non-locally,’ and the outside noise sources have less effect on the qubit, so we expect it to be more robust,” Manfra said.

The approach calls for weaving together arrays of exotic subatomic quasiparticles known as non-abelian anyons. Theoretically, such phenomena emerge from two-dimensional quantum systems, but so far, researchers have found only tentative evidence for their existence.

In the years ahead, Station Q’s researchers will have to solve knotty problems in materials science and condensed matter physics as well as electrical engineering and computer architecture, Manfra said.

“This is why Microsoft has assembled such a diverse set of talented people to tackle this large-scale problem,” he said. “No one person or group can be expert in all aspects.”

Purdue’s main focus will be to study ultra-pure semiconductors and hybrid systems of semiconductors and superconductors that could provide the physical platform for Station Q’s quantum computer.

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