Why Do Quantum Computers Look So Weird?

Superconducting Quantum Computer


As someone somewhat involved in the world of quantum computing, I am frequently asked about the iconic and somewhat bizarre appearance of quantum computers. The intricate giant chandelier of copper tubes, wires, and shielding often leaves people puzzled and curious. This image of a quantum computer is quite striking and unlike any classical computer we’ve seen before. This unique appearance is not just for show; it’s a direct result of the specific technological requirements needed to operate quantum computers, particularly those based on superconducting qubits.

Why Cryogenics?

Cryogenics, the science of producing and maintaining extremely low temperatures, is crucial for the operation of quantum computers. Quantum systems often operate in the millikelvin range, just thousandths of a degree above absolute zero (-273 °C or 0 Kelvin). Superconducting qubits need to be maintained at temperatures close to absolute zero (20-100 millikelvin) to minimize thermal noise and ensure quantum coherence. Thermal energy can cause decoherence, where qubits lose their quantum state. At higher temperatures, qubits interact more with their environment, leading to errors in computations. By cooling the system to near absolute zero, these interactions are minimized, allowing qubits to maintain coherence and perform the complex calculations quantum computers are designed for. While this temperature difference may seem minuscule, it has monumental implications for quantum technology. Even minute thermal vibrations at slightly higher temperatures, such as 4 Kelvin, can disrupt qubits, causing them to lose their quantum superposition states and revert to classical binary states through a process called decoherence.

To preserve quantum coherence long enough to perform computations, qubit processor chips must operate at temperatures between 20-100 millikelvin, only millionths of a degree above absolute zero. At these extreme cryogenic temperatures, materials become superconductors with zero electrical resistance, which is essential for several quantum computing techniques (see below).

Cryogenics provides a stable and ideal environment for quantum computers, akin to a vacuum chamber that isolates them from external disturbances. Leading quantum computing companies, such as Google and Intel, rely on advanced cryogenic systems to enable their superconducting quantum processors.

While superconducting quantum computers need these elaborate cryogenic systems, not all quantum computers do. Here’s a brief overview of different types of quantum computers and their cooling requirements:

  • Superconducting Quantum Computers:
    • Cooling Required: Yes
    • Reason: To maintain qubits at temperatures close to absolute zero, ensuring minimal thermal noise and quantum coherence.
  • Trapped Ion Quantum Computers:
    • Cooling Required: No
    • Reason: These use ions trapped in electromagnetic fields and manipulated with lasers, operating at room temperature or slightly above.
  • Photonic (Optical) Quantum Computers:
    • Cooling Required: No
    • Reason: These use photons (light particles) as qubits and typically operate at room temperature. They rely on optical components like beam splitters and phase shifters, which do not require extreme cooling.
  • Topological Quantum Computers:
    • Cooling Required: Potentially
    • Reason: Still largely theoretical, but if using certain superconducting materials, they might need cryogenic cooling.
  • Quantum Dots:
    • Cooling Required: Yes
    • Reason: Quantum dots need to be at very low temperatures to maintain quantum coherence.

Why Quantum Computer Chandeliers Hang from the Ceiling

The iconic chandelier-like structure of quantum computers we are discussing, is not just for aesthetic purposes. This design serves several practical functions, primarily focused on maintaining the stability and integrity of the quantum processor.

One of the critical reasons for suspending quantum computers from the ceiling is to minimize mechanical vibrations. In environments where quantum computers are housed, vibrations can come from various sources, including building infrastructure, equipment operation, and human activity like walking or moving around. These vibrations can propagate through the floor and building structure, potentially disturbing the delicate quantum states of the qubits. By hanging the quantum computer from the ceiling, these vibrations are significantly reduced. The ceiling structure is generally more stable and less prone to the kinds of mechanical disturbances that affect the floor. This suspension method helps isolate the quantum processor from ground-borne vibrations, ensuring a more stable environment for quantum operations.

In addition to vibration minimization, the chandelier design aids in thermal isolation. The cryogenic components of the quantum computer are suspended in a manner that minimizes heat transfer from the surrounding environment. This helps maintain the ultra-low temperatures required for superconducting qubits to function effectively.

The vertical arrangement of components in the chandelier structure also allows for an efficient layout of the cryogenic stages and wiring. This design provides easier access for maintenance and adjustments, ensuring that the quantum computer can be managed without significantly disturbing the delicate setup.

Key Components of a Cryogenic System

Quantum Computer
Source: IBM

Cryoperm Shield

One of the essential components in a quantum computer’s cryogenic system is the cryoperm shield. This shield plays a crucial role in protecting the delicate quantum processor from external magnetic and electromagnetic interference. Cryoperm is a high-permeability alloy specifically designed to provide magnetic shielding at cryogenic temperatures. The cryoperm shield effectively mitigates magnetic and electromagnetic disturbances by creating a barrier that absorbs and redirects unwanted magnetic fields away from the sensitive quantum chip.

The name “Cryoperm” is derived from two parts: “cryo,” which refers to the extremely low temperatures (cryogenic) at which the shield operates, and “perm,” which is short for permeability, indicating the material’s ability to support the formation of a magnetic field within itself. High permeability materials are excellent at diverting magnetic fields, thereby preventing them from penetrating and affecting the quantum processor.

Cryogenic Isolators

Cryogenic isolators play a crucial role in the overall stability and performance of quantum computers. These devices are specifically designed to maintain the integrity of the cryogenic environment by minimizing the transfer of heat and vibrations from the surrounding environment to the quantum processor. Given the extreme sensitivity of qubits to thermal and mechanical disturbances, cryogenic isolators are essential for preserving the delicate quantum states required for computation.

Cryogenic isolators serve two primary functions: thermal isolation and vibration damping. Thermal isolation is critical because even the slightest increase in temperature can introduce noise and cause qubits to lose their quantum coherence. By preventing heat transfer, cryogenic isolators help maintain the ultra-low temperatures necessary for superconducting qubits to function optimally.

Vibration damping is equally important. Quantum computers are often housed in environments where mechanical vibrations from equipment, building infrastructure, or even external sources like traffic can disrupt the qubits. Cryogenic isolators absorb and attenuate these vibrations, ensuring that the quantum processor remains undisturbed.

Cryogenic isolators are constructed from materials with low thermal conductivity and high mechanical damping properties. Common materials include certain polymers, composite materials, and metals specially treated to enhance their isolating capabilities. These isolators are strategically placed within the cryogenic system, particularly around the most sensitive components, such as the dilution refrigerator and the quantum chip.

Dilution Refrigerator and Mixing Chamber

Another key component, and the one to a large measure responsible for the distinctive look is the dilution refrigerator. This piece of equipment is responsible for achieving and maintaining the extremely low temperatures necessary for qubits to function correctly.

A dilution refrigerator utilizes a mixture of two helium isotopes, helium-3 and helium-4, to reach ultra-low temperatures. The cooling process involves several stages:

  1. Pre-Cooling Stage: Initially, the system is cooled to a few Kelvin using a pulse tube cryocooler or a similar device. This stage provides the initial cooling necessary before the dilution process begins.
  2. Mixing Chamber (Pictured above): The heart of the dilution refrigerator is the mixing chamber, where the helium-3 and helium-4 mixture is separated and recombined. At these low temperatures, helium-3 becomes a superfluid and can dissolve in helium-4, leading to a continuous cooling effect as the helium-3 atoms move from the concentrated phase to the dilute phase. This process can cool the system down to millikelvin temperatures.
  3. Continuous Circulation: The helium mixture is continuously circulated through the system, with helium-3 being pumped back into the mixing chamber, allowing the cooling process to be sustained over long periods.

The dilution refrigerator contributes significantly to the distinctive look. The complex array of tubes and wiring seen in these systems is part of the elaborate setup required to achieve and maintain the necessary low temperatures. The refrigerator itself is often suspended within a larger cryogenic system, with multiple stages of cooling and extensive shielding to protect the quantum processor from external disturbances.

Quantum Amplifiers

Quantum amplifiers ensure that the delicate signals carrying quantum information are accurately amplified without significant noise or distortion. In quantum computing, qubits generate extremely weak signals that need to be read and processed accurately. These signals often lie close to the noise floor, making them challenging to detect with conventional amplification methods. Quantum amplifiers are specifically designed to boost these weak signals while maintaining their integrity, enabling reliable readout and processing.

Quantum amplifiers operate at cryogenic temperatures and utilize superconducting circuits to achieve high gain with minimal added noise. Here’s how they function:

  • Superconducting Circuits: Quantum amplifiers use superconducting materials to create circuits with zero electrical resistance. This property is crucial for minimizing thermal noise and ensuring efficient signal amplification.
  • Parametric Amplification: These amplifiers rely on parametric amplification, where a pump signal modulates the properties of the superconducting circuit, leading to the amplification of the input quantum signal. This process allows for high-fidelity amplification with low noise.
  • Cryogenic Operation: Quantum amplifiers operate at the same cryogenic temperatures as the qubits they serve. This is essential to ensure that the amplification process does not introduce additional thermal noise that could degrade the quantum information.

Quantum amplifiers play several critical roles in the operation and performance of quantum computers:

  • Signal Integrity: Amplifying weak quantum signals without adding significant noise is essential for accurate qubit readout. Quantum amplifiers ensure that the amplified signals maintain their original quantum information, allowing for reliable measurement and error correction.
  • Error Correction: In quantum computing, error correction is vital for maintaining the fidelity of quantum operations. Accurate signal amplification helps detect and correct errors, improving the overall performance and reliability of quantum computations.
  • Scalability: As quantum computers scale up, the number of qubits increases, necessitating more robust and efficient amplification systems. Quantum amplifiers provide the necessary infrastructure to support larger quantum systems, enabling the development of more powerful quantum computers.

The integration of quantum amplifiers into quantum computing systems adds to the distinctive appearance of these machines. These amplifiers are typically located close to the qubits, often within the cryogenic setup, connected by intricate wiring that transmits the amplified signals to the control and readout electronics.


The distinctive look of quantum computers, with their chandelier-like structures, intricate arrays of tubes, wiring, and advanced shielding, is a direct result of the sophisticated technology required to maintain and manipulate qubits. Each component, from the cryogenic systems to the quantum amplifiers and cryoperm shields, plays a crucial role in ensuring the stability and coherence of quantum states, enabling the powerful computations that define quantum technology.

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