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Quantum computing is facing a component shortage… without a nuclear arms race

Shortages of specialised quantum hardware and nuclear material could stifle quantum research

If you thought the great GPU shortage of 2017/18 was bad, try being a quantum computing researcher. Shortages of specialised quantum hardware and ex-military nuclear material could stifle further development in the field. With growing applications for qubit’s entangled state, exotic components necessary for further research are becoming a hard-fought resource according to experts in the field.

Quantum computers utilise qubits: bits that can exist either as 1, 0, or everything in between. The unique properties of quantum PCs – superposition and entanglement – make these computers potentially very powerful, especially for cryptographic tasks. However, it also makes them complex and vulnerable to just about every fluctuation in the environment.

To keep everything in check and acting somewhat how you might expect, quantum computers require specialised housing and measuring tools. These are intended to maintain as little quantum noise as possible and keep errors – the scourge of quantum computing – and subsequent error-checking to a minimum. But all that specialised tech comes at a cost. Not only is the necessary hardware incredibly expensive, but lead times on equipment can be over a year.

Prohibitively expensive refrigerators can have lead times of over a year, Heise reports (via HardwareLuxx). Necessary supercooling gases, such as helium-3, a by-product of nuclear research and weapons programmes, are hard to come by, but their ability to produce temperatures as low as a fraction of a kelvin is pivotal to keeping qubits functioning. As nuclear weapons stores have depleted following the Cold War, so too has the world’s supply of helium-3.

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Without a steady supply of said gases, and necessary microwave transmitting cables, development and research falters in some areas. Organisations are now starting to wise-up to the growing shortage of quantum parts, and attempts are being made to convince suppliers to invest in quantum computing.

IBM Q System One

IBM Q System One is one approachable inlet to quantum computing. This stunning system lives up in the cloud (in New York somewhere) and the platform is distributed far and wide for accessible research and commercial applications via the web.

And while gaming on a quantum computer may seem like a colossal waste of potential, some smart folk are already on it – even creating a quantum game of Battleships.

With the likes of IBM, Google, Microsoft, Intel, and many more startups now engaged in the race to quantum supremacy (the point when quantum PCs out-crunch traditional computing), the supply and demand industry for necessary componentry should expand and mature along with it. Researchers, conferences, and startups are touted as some of the best ways to incentivise suppliers.

But all in due course. After all, quantum computing is still in its embryonic stages. In-silicon applications, such as Intel’s spin qubit approach, and non-cryogenic solutions are just a few of the potential avenues for further research that may not suffer the same shortages as those above but have their own hurdles to jump. We’re still not sure the best way to nail down qubits effectively, let alone create ones that are mass-manufacturable.