Detecting Dark Matter With Quantum Computers


Dark Matter Sub-Atomic Particle Artist's Concept

In a new breakthrough, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab have found a way to detect dark matter using quantum computers.

Dark matter makes up about 27% of the matter and energy budget in the universe, but scientists do not know much about it. They do know that it is cold, meaning that the particles that make up dark matter are slow-moving. It is also difficult to detect dark matter directly because it does not interact with light. However, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) have discovered a way to use quantum computers to look for dark matter.

Aaron Chou, a senior scientist at Fermilab, works on detecting dark matter through quantum science. As part of DOE’s Office of High Energy Physics QuantISED program, he has developed a way to use qubits, the main component of

How quantum computers could detect dark matter

A classical computer processes information with binary bits set to either 1 or 0. The specific pattern of ones and zeros makes it possible for the computer to perform certain functions and tasks. In quantum computing, however, qubits exist at both 1 and 0 simultaneously until they are read, due to a quantum mechanical property known as superposition. This property allows quantum computers to efficiently perform complex calculations that a classical computer would take an enormous amount of time to complete.

“Qubits work by manipulating single excitations of information, for example, single photons,” said Chou. “So, if you’re working with such small packets of energy as single excitations, you’re far more susceptible to external disturbances.”

Akash Dixit

Akash Dixit works on the team that uses quantum computers to look for dark matter. Here, Dixit holds a microwave cavity containing a superconducting qubit. The cavity has holes in its side in the same way the screen on a microwave oven door has holes; the holes are simply too small for microwaves to escape. Credit: Ryan Postel, Fermilab

In order for qubits to operate at these quantum levels, they must reside in carefully controlled environments that protect them from outside interference and keep them at consistently cold temperatures. Even the slightest disturbance can throw off a program in a quantum computer. With their extreme sensitivity, Chou realized quantum computers could provide a way to detect dark matter. He recognized that other dark matter detectors need to be shielded in the same way quantum computers are, further solidifying the idea.

“Both quantum computers and dark matter detectors have to be heavily shielded, and the only thing that can jump through is dark matter,” Chou said. “So, if people are building quantum computers with the same requirements, we asked ‘why can’t you just use those as dark matter detectors?’”

Where errors are most welcome

When dark matter particles traverse a strong magnetic field, they may produce photons that Chou and his team can measure with superconducting qubits inside aluminum photon cavities. Because the qubits have been shielded from all other outside disturbances, when scientists detect a disturbance from a photon, they can infer that it was the result of dark matter flying through the protective layers.

“These disturbances manifest as errors where you didn’t load any information into the computer, but somehow information appeared, like zeroes that flip into ones from particles flying through the device,” he said.

Aaron Chou

Scientist Aaron Chou leads the experiment that searches for dark matter using superconducting qubits and cavities. Credit: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

So far, Chou and his team have demonstrated how the technique works and that the device is incredibly sensitive to these photons. Their method has advantages over other sensors, such as being able to make multiple measurements of the same photon to ensure a disturbance was not just caused by another fluke. The device also has an ultra-low noise level, which allows for a heightened sensitivity to dark matter signals.

Even the slightest disturbance can throw off a program in a quantum computer. With their extreme sensitivity, Aaron Chou realized quantum computers could provide a way to detect dark matter.

“We know how to make these tunable boxes from the high-energy physics community, and we worked together with the quantum computing people to understand and transfer the technology for these qubits to be used as sensors,” Chou said.

From here, they plan to develop a dark matter detection experiment and continue improving upon the design of the device.

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