Although still in their infancy, quantum computers are already big business, with IBM, Microsoft, Google, and state actors like China cumulatively investing billions to develop the superfast number crunchers. But ColdQuanta, a relatively tiny Boulder firm, may beat them all to a major milestone later this year: releasing a 100-qubit quantum computer.

That would be a big step toward quantum advantage (QA), the point at which these machines will be able to compute in seconds certain kinds of useful problems that would take traditional supercomputers thousands of years to solve. How? Where your laptop must try each possible solution in turn to find the answer, quantum computers can test solutions simultaneously. To do this, they swap bits for qubits made of atoms or subatomic particles chilled to just above absolute zero, where the laws of physics get freaky. While a bit can only be a one or a zero, heads or tails, qubits can be both heads and tails at once.

ColdQuanta’s advantage lies in how it chills those atoms. Unlike many of its competitors, who use bulky liquid helium refrigeration, ColdQuanta uses lasers and traps them in a sleek glass prism. The technique is so effective, says Paul Lipman, ColdQuanta’s president of quantum computing, that it may only take a few more years to reach the hundreds­—or even thousands—of qubits necessary to achieve QA. Once it’s realized, QA could accelerate scientific discovery, from modeling new cancer drugs on a molecular level to mapping the state of the universe seconds after the Big Bang.

This article was originally published in 5280 October 2021.

Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt

Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for 5280.com.