Delsing took his degree at Lund University in southern Sweden, and then went to Zurich, Switzerland, where he spent two years studying at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), the university Einstein had attended. He then went to Chalmers in Gothenburg for his doctoral studies. He’s stayed in the city for the past 34 years, with the majority of his spent time at Chalmers. And it’s the tiny particles that have always interested him the most. “You could say that I started out manipulating single electrons in circuits,” Delsing explains. “Then I switched to manipulating light particles, what are known as photons. Then my interest shifted to sound particles, known as phonons.”
As a researcher, he has been involved in two genuinely groundbreaking discoveries. The first was in 2011, when he and some colleagues succeeded in demonstrating the dynamic Casimir effect, a phenomenon that was predicted 40 years earlier but was thought impossible to prove.
You could say that I started out manipulating single electrons in circuits.
Per Delsing, professor of physics, Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden
“The premise is that it’s possible to create light from a vacuum if you move a mirror at a speed close to the speed of light,” Delsing explains. “The problem is simply that it’s difficult to do this in practice. Instead of moving the mirror, we modified its properties so it looked like it had moved and could really generate light from a vacuum.”
The second discovery was moving an atom to emit sound. “Generally if you excite an atom – in other words, supply energy so that it jumps up to a higher energy level – it will emit light. But by placing it on a substrate that contracts or expands when you apply voltage, we got it to produce sound instead. This meant that we could actually listen to an atom for the very first time.”
Delsing is now looking forward to the outcome of the work on the quantum computer. The goal is to have a functioning 100-qubit quantum computer in 10 years, with several smaller quantum computers as milestones along the way. “The first one we make will be 10 to 20 qubits,” Delsing says. “By first building smaller processors, we can solve the problems in stages and take what we’ve learned with us to the next version.”
The most powerful working quantum computers in existence today are probably around 20 qubits. Their development is surrounded by a lot of secrecy, so nobody knows for sure if one exists that is even more powerful. “One of the applications is cracking codes, so if anyone does succeed in building one in secret, this would allow him to both spy on confidential communications and steal money, because online transactions can be hacked using a quantum computer,” Delsing explains. “So it’s really important for the ‘good guys’ to get there first.”