Scientists have shown how an optical chip can simulate the motion of atoms within molecules at the quantum level, which could lead to better ways of creating chemicals for use as pharmaceuticals. An optical chip uses light to process information, instead of electricity, and can operate as a quantum computing circuit when using single particles of light, known as photons. Data from the chip allows a frame-by-frame reconstruction of atomic motions to create a virtual movie of a molecule's quantum vibrations, which is what lies at the heart of the research published today in Nature. These findings are the result of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Bristol, MIT, IUPUI, Nokia Bell Labs, and NTT. As well as paving the way for more efficient pharmaceutical developments, the research could prompt new methods of molecular modelling for industrial chemists.
When lasers were invented in the 1960s, experimental chemists had the idea of using them to break apart molecules. However, the vibrations within molecules rapidly redistribute the laser energy before the intended molecular bond is broken. Controlling the behaviour of molecules requires an understanding of how they vibrate at the quantum level. But modelling these dynamics requires massive computational power, beyond what we can expect from coming generations of supercomputers. The Quantum Engineering and Technology Labs at Bristol have pioneered the use of optical chips, controlling single photons of light, as basic circuitry for quantum computers. Quantum computers are expected to be exponentially faster than conventional supercomputers at solving certain problems.