NMR based quantum computing: gates and state preparation

In my last post on NMR based quantum computing, we have seen how an individual qubit can be implemented based on NMR technology. However, just having a single qubit is of course not really helpful – what we are still missing is the ability to initialize several qubits and to realize interacting quantum gates. These are the topics that we will discuss today.

The physics and mathematics behind these topics is a bit more involved, and I will try to keep things simple. In case you would like to dive more deeply into some of the details, you might want to take a look at my notes on GitHub as well as the references cited there.

Pseudo-pure states

In quantum computing, we are typically manipulating individual qubits which are initially in a pure state. In an NMR probe, however, we usually have a state which is very far from being a pure state. Instead, we typically deal with highly mixed states, and it appears to be impossible to prepare all spins in an NMR probe in the same, well defined pure state. So we first need to understand how the usual formalism of quantum computing – expressed in terms of qubits being in pure states which are subject to unitary operations – relates to the description of an NMR experiment in terms of density matrices and mixed states.

The formalism that we will now describe is known as the formalism of pseudo-pure states. These are states that are described by a density matrix of the form

\rho = \frac{1}{2^N}(1-\epsilon) + \epsilon |\psi \rangle \langle \psi |

with a pure state |\psi \rangle. Here, N is the number of spins, and the factor 1/2N has been inserted to normalize the state. This density matrix describes an ensemble for which almost all molecules are in purely statistically distributed states, but a small fraction – measured by \epsilon – of them are in a pure state. The second term in this expression is often called the deviation and denoted by \rho_\Delta.

Why are these states useful? To see this, let us calculate the time evolution of this state under a unitary matrix U. In the density matrix formalism, the time evolution is given by conjugation, and a short calculation shows that

U(t) \rho U(t)^{-1} = \frac{1}{2^N} (1-\epsilon) + \epsilon |U(t) \psi \rangle \langle U(t) \psi |

Thus the result is again a pseudo-pure state. In fact, it is the pseudo-pure state that corresponds to the pure state U|\psi \rangle. Similarly, one can show that if A is an observable, described by a hermitian matrix (which, for technical reasons, we assume to be traceless), then the expectation value of A evaluated on |\psi \rangle – which is the result a measurement would yield in the pure state formalism – is, up to a constant, the same as the result of a measurement of A on an ensemble prepared in the pure state corresponding to |\psi \rangle!

Using these relations, we can now translate the typical process of a quantum computation as expressed in the standard, pure state formalism, into NMR terminology as follows.

  • The process of initializing a quantum computer into an initial state |\psi \rangle corresponds to putting the NMR probe into the corresponding pseudo-pure state with \rho_{\Delta} \sim |\psi \rangle \langle \psi|
  • If the quantum algorithm is described as a unitary operator U (typically presented as a sequence of gates Ui), we apply the same unitary operator to the density matrix, i.e. we realize the gates as an NMR experiment
  • We then measure the macroscopic quantity A which will give us – up to a factor – the result of the calculation

This is nice, but how do we prepare these states? Different researchers have come up with different techniques to do this. One of the ideas that is commonly applied is averaging. This is based on the observation that the state at thermal equilibrium is a pseudo-pure state up to an error term. This error term can be removed by averaging over many instances of the same experiment (while somehow shuffling the initial states around using a clever manipulation). So we first let the probe settle down, i.e. prepare it in a thermal state (which can even be at room temperature). We then run our quantum algorithm and measure. Next, we re-initialize the system, apply a certain transformation and re-run the algorithm. We repeat this several times, with a prescribed set of unitary transformations that we apply in each run to the thermal equilibrium state before running the quantum algorithm. At the end, we add up all our results and take the average. It can be shown that these initial “shuffling transformations” can be chosen such that the difference between the thermal state and the pseudo-pure state cancels out.

Quantum gates

Having this result in place, we now need to understand how we can actually realize quantum gates. In the last post, we have already seen that we can use RF-pulses to rotate the state of an NMR qubit on the Bloch sphere, which can be used to realize single qubit gates. But how do we realize two-qubit gates like the CNOT gate? For that purpose, we need some type of interaction between two qubits.

Now, in reality, any two molecules in an NMR probe do of course interact – by their electric and magnetic fields, by direct collision and so forth. It turns out that in most circumstances, all but one type of coupling called the J-coupling can be neglected. This coupling is an indirect coupling – the magnetic moment created by a nuclear spin interacts with the electric field of an electron, which in turn interacts with the magnetic moment of a different nuclear spin. In the Hamiltonian – in a rotating frame – the J-coupling contributes a term like

\frac{2 \pi}{\hbar} J_{12} I^1_z I^2_z

where J12 is a coupling constant. This term introduces a correlation between the two nuclear spins, similar to an additional magnetic field depending on the state of the second qubit. The diagram below is the result of a simulation of an initial state to which J-coupling is applied and demonstrates that the J-coupling manifests itself in a splitting of peaks in an NRM diagram.


An NMR diagram is the result of a Fourier transform, so an additional peak corresponds to a slow, additional rotation of the two spin polarizations around each other.

Let us take a closer look at this. If we apply a free evolution under the influence of J-coupling over some time t, it can be shown – again I refer to my notes on GitHub for the full math – that the time evolution is given by the operator

U = \cos (\frac{\pi J_{12}}{2} t) -i \sigma_z^1 \sigma_z^2 \sin (\frac{\pi J_{12}}{2}  t)

If we choose t such that

\frac{\pi J_{12}}{2} t = \frac{\pi}{4}

and combine this time evolution with rotations around the z-axis of both qubits, we obtain the following transformation, expressed as a matrix

R_{z^2}(-\frac{\pi}{2}) R_{z^1}(-\frac{\pi}{2}) U =  \frac{1+i}{\sqrt{2}} \begin{pmatrix} 1 & & & \\ & 1 & & \\ & & 1 & \\ & & & -1  \end{pmatrix}

Technically, this transformation is the result of letting the system evolve under the influence of J-coupling for the time t and then applying two sharp RF pulses, one at resonance with the first qubit and one at resonance with the second qubit, timed such that they correspond to a rotation on the Bloch sphere around the z-axis with angle \pi / 2. The matrix on the right hand side of this equation represents a two-qubit transformation known as the controlled phase gate. This gate corresponds to applying a phase gate to the second qubit, conditional on the state of the first qubit.

This already looks very similar to a CNOT gate, and in fact it is – one can easily show that the phase gate is equivalent to the CNOT gate up to single qubit operations, more precisely these two gates are related by

C_{NOT} = (I \otimes H) C_{PHASE} (I \otimes H)

where I is the identity and H is the Hadamard gate. As single qubit operations can be realized by RF pulses, this shows that a CNOT gate can be realized by a free evolution under the J-coupling, framed by sequences of RF pulses. This, together with single qubit gates, gives us a universal gate set.

This completes our short deep dive into NMR based quantum computing. Historically, NMR based quantum computers were among the first fully functional implementations of (non error-corrected) universal quantum computers, but have come a bit out of fashion in favor of other technologies. At the time of writing, most of the large technology players focus on a different approach – superconducting qubits – which I will cover in the next couple of posts on quantum computing.

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