Researchers have taken a significant step towards the designing an ultrafast quantum computer that could operate at speeds even more mind-boggling than the world's fastest super-computers.

The research done by scientists from Simon Fraser University, Oxford University, and Berlin has been published in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Till date, quantum computers are known to exist only in physicists' concepts, and theoretical research. There are some basic quantum computers in existence, but nobody yet can build a truly practical one or really knows how.

Such computers will harness the powers of atoms and sub-atomic particles (ions, photons, electrons) to perform memory and processing tasks, thanks to strange sub-atomic properties.

The scientists have made a "superposition" which is the ability of an atom or quantum magnet (spin) to exist in two places at once. This lasts up to three minutes and 12 seconds, over 100 times longer than the record of 1.75 seconds achieved in silicon by the same team in 2008.

According to the Oxford University, a quantum computer works by storing the 0s and 1s of information in such quantum superposition states, and could solve problems that are impossible for even the fastest conventional supercomputers.

Although such quantum superpositions have been observed in the past in the laboratory, these fragile states are known to last only for fractions of a second. Hence, they do not provide a practical blueprint for building a fully-functional quantum computer. However, using the spins of atomic nuclei within an ultra-pure form of silicon, the research team was able to create a superposition state which lasted for more than three minutes.

"It's by far a record in solid-state systems," said Professor Mike Thewalt of Simon Fraser University, Canada, who led the team. "If you'd asked people a few years ago if this was possible, they'd have said no. This opens new ways of using semiconductors such as silicon as a base for quantum computing. You can start to do things that people thought you could only do in a vacuum."

The current work by Thewalt and his fellow researchers opens up yet another avenue of research and application that may, in time, lead to practical breakthroughs in quantum computing.