Osram taking 'beyond illumination' to quantum levels

May 25, 2021
IoT, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, and the like are now ensconced in the lighting lexicon. Why stop there? Osram adds quantum computing to the list.

In recent years, Osram has made it a point to identify new target markets for its LEDs and laser chips. Keen to justify the €370 million investment in its modern Kulim, Malaysia LED plant, it has emphasized that its optical semiconductors are not just for illumination but are vital tools in an increasingly digitally connected IoT world, driving things like health and fitness gadgets, security devices, augmented virtual reality, autonomous vehicles and more.

And as LEDs Magazine has pointed out, now that sensor company ams has acquired Osram, that messaging is growing even more pronounced.

Still, it was a bit of an eye opener when we cruised over to the Osram website today and spotted the latest apple of Osram's eye, flagged in can't-miss position at the top of the page  quantum computing.

Quantum computing, as you will probably know, augurs unfathomable increases in computing power. It will make today's supercomputers look like typewriters. As we have noted, engineers are still years away from building true, fully-fledged quantum systems, but the likes of Google, IBM, Microsoft, and many others are on the case.

The technology draws on the precepts of quantum physics, in which things can be in two states or places at the same time, using “qbits” instead of the bits of today's merely powerful computers. A qbit in quantum computing can be a zero or a one, for instance, with mind-boggling benefits for system efficacy.

And that, notes Osram, is where its optical chips can help. Because guess what can create a qbit? While there are several methods under development in the quantum world, Osram is focused on one involving optical chips, as the company explains.

“In this method, lasers and precision optics are used to trap individual charged atoms, in other words ions, in vacuum chambers,” Osram writes in an essay posted prominently on the Osram website, and based on an interview with Hubert Halbritter, development engineer for new chip technologies at ams-Osram Group's Opto Semiconductors unit.

Munich-based Osram is working on the technology as part of the Quantum Valley Lower Saxony research consortium overseen by the Technical University of Braunschweig.

“Each of these ions is a qubit*, a computable quantum bit,” the essay continues. “They are loaded with information by means of precise laser pulses and brought into a defined state. For qubits to know what they are supposed to calculate, commands are transferred to the ion qubits in different stages using targeted laser pulses. In this way, two or more ions can be prepared in the trap so they form interconnected or 'entangled' quantum bits. These enable basic quantum IT operations to be performed.”

In the essay, Halbritter advocates using the laser method over others.

“Laser-controlled ion traps are the only technology that can produce quantum states at room temperature,” Halbritter says. “With all the other technologies you need extremely low temperatures, way lower than anything we encounter in our everyday lives.”

Osram claims that ion traps have comparatively lower error rates than other approaches, and notes that its method can be miniaturized.

“We need accurate, compact lasers so we can target the ions with a high level of precision,” says Halbritter. “Laser diodes, optics, and beam guidance systems have to be combined in an extremely small space in order to hit the ions accurately. That’s the challenge for my team. It’s a bit like using a laser pointer to hit a human hair hundreds of meters away. This requires an extremely precise wavelength and a very steady hand.”

A challenge indeed. “At present, the laser wavelength cannot be stabilized or controlled with the accuracy needed for ion traps, nor can parallel lasers be set up with the necessary precision in the tiniest of spaces,” Halbritter acknowledges.

But Osram is working on it. All the while, the quantum work is providing insights into miniaturization that Osram will apply in other areas.

“In our quest to create a quantum computer, we are making technological advances that we can use for other applications,” Halbritter notes. “Sensors, LEDs and optics must be miniaturized and packed together in the tiniest of spaces. This is urgently anticipated for markets that are important today or will be in the near future, such as augmented reality, display technologies and ambient sensors.”

The work will also include development of single chips that combine LEDs, lasers, and photodiodes, a class of circuitry known as a photonics integrated circuit, or PIC.

Exactly where production will take place once Osram puts the finishing touches on some of these shrunken marvels remains to be seen. Under new owner ams, the global factory footprint looks set for a shakeup. Like a qbit, it seems that the company has production going on in two places at once in some instances. Unlike in quantum computing, that can be an inefficient process in manufacturing.

*Editor's note: The quantum computing community uses two spellings, qbit and qubit.

MARK HALPER is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.