Whereas computers now use transistors to crunch 0s and 1s, a quantum computer could theoretically perform dozens of calculations simultaneously by zapping charged subatomic particles, called ions, with a laser.
One of the first steps in building a functional quantum computer is trapping the ions in order to zap them. That’s why physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have created this ion trap, a web of electrodes that produces an electric field to hold the ions in place. Once in place, the ions hover just above the trap’s surface. Project physicist Jason Amini says there’s still much work to do. For example, he and his group would like to build a trap that can hold hundreds of ions instead of the two or three it currently manages. If they can pull it off, the traps could outperform conventional computers on certain tasks within the next five years.