Rice University physicists have created a tiny “electron superhighway” that could one day be useful for building a quantum computer — a type of computer that uses quantum particles in place of the digital transistors found in today’s microchips. Quantum computers may offer the ability to complete intense computing tasks like code-breaking, climate modeling, and biomedical simulation thousands of times faster.

Today’s computers use binary bits of data that are either ones or zeros. Quantum computers would use quantum bits, or “qubits,” which can be both ones and zeros at the same time, thanks to the quirks of quantum mechanics. This quirk gives quantum computers a huge edge in performing particular types of calculations.

Researchers are taking a number of approaches to creating qubits. Rice University physicists are following the approach of “topological quantum computing.” Topological designs are expected to be more fault-tolerant than other types of quantum computers because each qubit in a topological quantum computer will be made from a pair of quantum particles that have a virtually immutable shared identity. The catch is that physicists have yet to create or observe one of these stable pairs of particles, which are called “Majorana fermions.”

The race to create them in a chip has just begun. In particular, physicists believe the particles can be made by marrying a two-dimensional topological insulator — like the one created at Rice University — to a superconductor.

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Also: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory generated a scheme for entering binary data into a quantum computer.