Science merged with science fiction yesterday as chip experts revealed that transistor-based computing may one day be replaced with atomic-based technology.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has successfully paired the first ion traps, creating the building-blocks for quantum computing.

Unlike current transistor-based computing architectures, the NIST’s quantum-computing architecture uses ions – electrically charged atoms – held in electromagnetic traps. These interact with one another to create computational signals, according to the NIST.

Where transistors can only function in an ‘on’ or ‘off’ mode, represented by the binary language of ones and zeros, atoms within a quantum computer can work in several different states simultaneously – allowing such an architecture to potentially process an exponentially higher amount of data than a transistor-based computer, according to the NIST.

Stability The Institute has successfully paired two ion traps, separated by a mere 1.2mm, at the organization’s labs. It reports that the experimental ion traps have remained stable, suggesting that a larger quantum computer could be build upon such architecture.

“However, manipulating a large number of ions in a single trap presents immense technical difficulties, and scaling arguments suggest that this scheme is limited to computations on tens of ions,” according to a statement issued by the NIST.

No indication was given as to when possible commercial applications of quantum computing might emerge.