Quantum computing has come a long way in the past decade. Today, we are closer to practical quantum hardware than ever before. Yet, this tremendous prospect remains out of reach—and experts don’t know how long it will take to become a reality.
That hasn’t stopped startups, tech giants, and chipmakers alike from throwing their hats into the quantum computing ring. Intel is the latest to take a step forward, recently announcing a new quantum chip dubbed Tunnel Falls.
The 12-qubit silicon chip uses spin qubits to perform complex computing functions. However, it won’t be available commercially. Intel plans to ship Tunnel Falls chips to leading researchers and academic institutions in hopes the collaboration will advance quantum spin qubit research.
Given that quantum computing is still in its relative infancy, academic institutions don’t have the manufacturing fabrication equipment necessary to produce quantum chips at scale. Intel, as one of the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturers, does.
Putting Tunnel Falls chips directly into the hands of researchers means they can start experimenting and working on new research projects immediately. Intel hopes this will open a wide range of experiments and lead to new discoveries about the fundamentals of qubits and quantum dots.
Intel’s director of quantum hardware, Jim Clarke, said in a statement, “Tunnel Falls is Intel’s most advanced silicon spin qubit chip to date and draws upon the company’s decades of transistor design and manufacturing expertise. The release of the new chip is the next step in Intel’s long-term strategy to build a full-stack commercial quantum computing system.”
“While there are still fundamental questions and challenges that must be solved along the path to a fault-tolerant quantum computer, the academic community can now explore this technology and accelerate research development,” he adds.
The first institutions to receive Tunnel Falls silicon include the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS), Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Rochester, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Intel is also collaborating with the Qubits for Computing Foundry (QCF) program through the U.S. Army Research Office.
With this initiative, Intel aims to “democratize silicon spin qubits by enabling researchers to gain hands-on experience working with scaled arrays of these qubits.”
Notably, information gathered from experiments and research at partner institutions will be shared publicly. So while sharing Tunnel Falls chips is an effort to help Intel advance its quantum silicon ambitions, it is also a source of learning for the wider quantum community.
Tunnel Falls is Intel’s first spin qubit device being released to the research community. It comes after nearly a decade of research from Intel Labs. The chip is fabricated on 300-millimeter wafers in the company’s D1 fabrication facility using Intel’s advanced manufacturing capabilities.
But what is a spin qubit? Rather than encoding data in traditional binary 1s and 0s, spin qubits encode information in the spin (up/down) of a single electron. Intel likens each qubit device to a single electron transistor.
Notably, this design has similar fabrication requirements as standard complementary metal oxide semiconductors (CMOS). This allows Intel to leverage innovative process control techniques to enable yield and performance. The Tunnel Falls chip has a 95% yield rate across the wafer, which provides over 24,000 quantum dot devices.
In a press release, the company says it believes, “Silicon may be the platform with the greatest potential to deliver scaled-up quantum computing.
Intel believes spin qubits are the superior form of qubit technology thanks to the synergy they have with traditional cutting-edge transistors. This approach also comes with a size advantage, making each Intel qubit about one million times smaller than other qubit designs. For commercial quantum computers, millions of qubits will be needed. But Intel believes spin qubits make this possible since they can be packed into chips that resemble a CPU.
Despite the important advances happening across the quantum field, no one really knows how this technology will pan out commercially. Even so, Intel is already working on its next-generation Tunnel Falls chip. The company plans to release it as soon as 2024.
In the meantime, it will work on integrating Tunnel Falls into its full quantum stack. The Intel Quantum Software Development Kit (SDK) will also play an important role. A functional tech stack to support its quantum hardware is an enticing way for Intel to sway prospective buyers in its direction.
Ultimately, however, the commercial application isn’t the most exciting part about Tunnel Falls. Putting powerful quantum hardware into the hands of researchers will increase the pace of discoveries in the quantum field and lead to new advancements in the coming days. With the industry working together, quantum computing inches ever closer to practicality.