UNSW Sydney Scientia Professor Michelle Simmons, from the School of Physics, created the field of atomic electronics. This involves building electronic devices at the atomic scale. She has since pioneered unique technologies within the field.

Prof Simmons’ achievements include building the world's smallest transistor, the narrowest conducting wires, 3D atomic electronics and—where qubits are basic bits of quantum information—the first two qubit gate using atom-based qubits in silicon. 

Her discoveries are now being commercialised as the basis for a new generation of quantum computing. This is a discipline based on the principles of quantum physics. It can potentially solve extremely complex problems that would otherwise take thousands of years in minutes.

Prof Simmons founded Silicon Quantum Computing, a UNSW start-up that is also Australia’s first quantum computing company. It is the only company in the world that manufactures with atomic precision. She also holds partnerships through UNSW Sydney with governments and industry partners, including banks and telecommunication companies.

"Our team is always pushing the edge of what’s possible. As scientists and engineers, we get a daily shot of adrenalin to work in this space." 
- Professor Michelle Simmons

Challenges & opportunities

Prof Simmons manipulates atoms to create new devices at the atomic scale. Her research has pioneered new technologies to realise the world’s first single atom transistor. 

The transistor was advanced to an integrated circuit where all components were made with atomic precision. This was a significant technical breakthrough by Prof Simmons and her team in 2021, which, she says was the biggest result of her career. The transistor helped accurately model the quantum states of a small, organic polyacetylene molecule—two years ahead of schedule. From this, new materials can be created that don’t yet exist—superconductors, materials for batteries, pharmaceuticals or catalysts.

“This has never been done before. Nobody else in the world can do it,” Prof Simmons said.  

“What is even more exciting for us is having done that, we have seen that classical roadmap. We know the commercial devices that are within the next five or six years.” 

She says there are at least 60 different algorithms for quantum computing with numerous applications already identified.  

“I’m certain there are more applications not yet imagined.” 

“We're near the limit of what classical computers can do, so it's like stepping off the edge into the unknown."

 - Professor Michelle Simmons

Forward focused

Prof Simmons’ discoveries have the potential to impact almost every industry dependent on data—from revolutionising therapeutic drug design, optimising route planning for delivery or logistical systems (reducing fuel costs and delivery times), improving the energy density of batteries, software and hardware verification, early disease detection and prevention, to creating better fertilisers for agriculture. But these efforts all rely on strong partnerships. 

“Figuring out how to make electronic devices with atomic precision is not something I could ever have done on my own,” Prof Simmons said.

She and her team are leading the international race to develop the world’s first error-corrected quantum computer in silicon. Such a computer can potentially transform the information economy and create the industries of the future, solving in hours or minutes problems that would take supercomputers centuries.

So far, the quantum computer is but an idea of the past three decades. But Prof Simmons says that its development is on a comparable trajectory to how classical computers evolved. First, there was a transistor in 1947. Then, an integrated circuit in 1958. Small computing chips came next. They were inserted into commercial products such as calculators about 5 years after that.

“And so we're now replicating that roadmap for quantum computers,” Prof Simmons said.

From a single atom transistor in 2012 to the equivalent of the atom-scale quantum integrated circuit in 2021, “if we map it to the evolution of classical computing, we're predicting we should have some kind of commercial outcome from our technology five years from now.”

Australia accounts for 4.2 per cent of global quantum research. Prof Simmons notes that Australia has been training physicists, engineers and computer scientists in quantum technologies for more than 25 years. 

“Our talent to make the world’s first quantum computer is already here.”

"We’ve really shown that it is possible to control the world at the atomic scale – and that the benefits of the approach are transformational."

 - Professor Michelle Simmons

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