Fermilab Engineers Launch QICK, a New Cost-effective Control Electronics for Improved Performance of Quantum Computers

Engineers in the U.S Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have developed the Quantum Instrumentation Control Kit (QICK), a control and readout electronics system to solve the communication problem in quantum computers. The device is expected to improve the performance of quantum devices at a reduced cost.

Quantum computers perform complex calculations that are unachievable with classical computers. They operate on the microscopic probabilities of quantum mechanics. 

Also, classical computers work on classical physics, and the language is simple. Therefore, there is a need for control and readout electronics to translate back and forth between the human operator and the quantum computer. 

The control electronics will use classical signals as instructions for the quantum computer while the readout electronics translate quantum computer language into classical information. The existing systems are expensive, but the newly developed Quantum Instrumentation Control Kit offers better performance at a reduced cost.

“The development of the Quantum Instrumentation Control Kit is an excellent example of U.S. investment in joint quantum technology research with partnerships between industry, academia and government to accelerate pre-competitive quantum research and development technologies.”

Harriet Kung, DOE deputy director for science programs for the Office of Science and acting associate director of science for high-energy physics

Fermilab’s senior principal engineer, Gustavo Cancelo led the team of engineers who collaborated with the University of Chicago lab led by David Schuster, a physicist at the University, to create faster and less expensive controls. The University aimed to develop and test a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) controller for quantum experiments.

“This is exactly the type of project that combines the strengths of a national laboratory and a university,” “There is a clear need for an open-source control hardware ecosystem, and it is being rapidly adopted by the quantum community.”

David Schuster, physicist at the University of chicago

For most superconducting quantum computers present, the control and readout systems use off-the-shelf commercial technology. This method involves attaching many components together. Such control systems aren’t only bulky but expensive.

Turnaround time determines the strength of the control and readout system. But qubits have a short lifetime.

“When you work with qubits, time is critical. Classical electronics take time to respond to the qubits, limiting the computer’s performance,” “We are designing a general instrument for a large variety of qubits, hoping to cover those that will be designed six months or a year from now,” “With our control and readout electronics, you can achieve functionality and performance that is hard or impossible to do with commercial equipment.”

Gustavo Cancelo, Fermilab’s senior principal engineer

QICK will eliminate the time factor challenge since they’re faster. The components found in the off-the-shelf equipment are integrated into the radio frequency board, which contains mixers, filters, amplifiers, attenuators, and switches, all performing different functions. It also includes a low-frequency control of tuning specific qubic parameters. The two compact boards cost about ten times less to produce than conventional systems. 

The design saves cost and makes operations more precise. Coupled with an FPGA chip that integrates digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters, the RF board functions as the brain of the computer; it offers everything needed for communicating with the quantum world. 

“You need to inject signals that are very, very fast and very, very short,” “If you don’t control both the frequency and duration of these signals very precisely, then your qubit won’t behave the way you want.”

Leandro Stefanazzi, Fermilab engineer

The  RF board took six months of painstaking work and is now ready for fabrication. Engineers had to avoid layouts that could pick up stray radio waves from cell phones and wifi sources. Matching adjacent circuit elements was also a challenge while designing the RF board. The team is aiming to have RF boards by summer.

“I often joke that this one board is going to potentially replace almost all of the test equipment that I have in my lab,” “Getting to team up with people who can make electronics work at that level is incredibly rewarding for us.”

David Schuster, physicist at the University of chicago

The newly developed system got support from QuantISED, the Quantum Science Center (QSC), and  Fermilab-hosted Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center (SQMS). SQMS and QSC will benefit significantly from QICK for their research work.

“Due to its low cost, it allows smaller institutions to have powerful quantum control without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars,”

Gustavo Cancelo, Fermilab’s senior principal engineer

The RF board is small enough to be synchronized into large quantum computers, an opportunity for scalability.

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About Fermilab

Fermilab is America’s premier particle physics and accelerator laboratory. Collaborating with scientists from around the world, they perform pioneering research, operate world-leading particle accelerators and experiments, and develop technologies for science in support of U.S. industry. Fermilab works on the world’s most advanced particle accelerators and digs down to the smallest building blocks of matter.

“From a scientific point of view, we are working on one of the hottest topics in physics of the decade as an opportunity,” he added. “From an engineering point of view, what I enjoy is that many areas of electronic engineering need to come together to be able to successfully execute this project.”

Gustavo Cancelo, Fermilab’s senior principal engineer