February 25, 2024

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Science is worth exploring

Quantum computers braided ‘anyons,’ long-sought quasiparticles with memory

Anyons, anyone?

Scientists have created strange new particle-like objects called non-abelian anyons. These long-sought quasiparticles can be “braided,” meaning that they can be moved around one another and retain a memory of that swapping, similar to how a braided ponytail keeps a record of the order in which strands cross over each other.

Two independent teams — one led by researchers at Google, the other by researchers at the quantum computing company Quantinuum — have reported creating and braiding versions of these anyons using quantum computers. The Google and Quantinuum results, respectively reported May 11 in Nature and May 9 at arXiv.org, could help scientists construct quantum computers that are resistant to the errors that currently bedevil the machines.

Non-abelian anyons defy common intuition about what happens to objects that swap locations. Picture the street game with cups and balls, where a performer swaps identical cups back and forth. If you weren’t watching closely, you’d never know if two cups had been moved around one another and back to their original positions. In the quantum world, that’s not always the case.

“It’s predicted that there is this crazy particle where, if you swap them around each other while you have your eyes closed, you can actually tell after the fact,” says physicist Trond Andersen of Google Quantum AI in Santa Barbara, Calif. “This goes against our common sense, and it seems crazy.”

Particles in our regular 3-D world can’t do this magic trick. But when particles are confined to just two dimensions, the rules change. While scientists don’t have a 2-D universe in which to explore particles, they can manipulate materials or quantum computers to exhibit behavior like that of particles that live in two dimensions, creating objects known as quasiparticles.

All fundamental subatomic particles fall into two classes, based on how identical particles of each type behave when swapped. They are either fermions, a class that includes electrons and other particles that make up matter, or bosons, which include particles of light known as photons.

But in two dimensions, there’s another option: anyons. For bosons or fermions, swapping identical particles back and forth or moving them around one another can’t have a directly measurable effect. For anyons, it can.

In the 1990s, scientists realized that a specific version of an anyon, called a non-abelian anyon, could be used to build quantum computers that might safeguard fragile quantum information, which is easily knocked out of whack by minute disturbances.

“For fundamental reasons these anyons have been very exciting, and for practical reasons people hope they might be useful,” says theoretical physicist Maissam Barkeshli of the University of Maryland in College Park, who was not involved with either study.

Google’s team created the anyons using a superconducting quantum computer, where the quantum bits, or qubits, are made of material that conducts electricity without resistance. Quantinuum’s study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, is based on a quantum computer whose qubits are composed of trapped, electrically charged atoms of ytterbium and barium. In both cases, scientists manipulated the qubits to create the anyons and move them around, demonstrating a measurable change after the anyons were braided.

Scientists have previously created and braided a less exotic type of anyon, called an abelian anyon, within a 2-D layer of a solid material (SN: 7/9/20). And many physicists are similarly questing after a solid material that might host the non-abelian type.

But the new studies create non-abelian states within qubits inside a quantum computer, which is fundamentally different, Barkeshli says. “You’re kind of synthetically creating the state for a fleeting moment.” That means it doesn’t have all the properties that anyons within a solid material would have, he says.

In both cases, much more work must be done before the anyons could create powerful, error-resistant quantum computers. Google’s study, in particular, produces an anyon that’s akin to a fish out of water. It’s a non-abelian within a more commonplace abelian framework. That means those anyons may not be as powerful for quantum computing, Barkeshli says.

It’s not all about practical usefulness. Demonstrating that non-abelian anyons really exist is fundamentally important, says Quantinuum’s Henrik Dreyer, a physicist in Munich. It “confirms that the rules of quantum mechanics apply in the way that we thought they would apply.”