If you want to factor a number, one way to do it is Shor’s algorithm. That’s a quantum algorithm and finds prime factors of integers. That’s interesting because prime factorization is a big deal of creating or breaking most modern encryption techniques.

Back in 2001, a group at IBM factored 15 (the smallest number that the algorithm can factor) using a 7 qubit system that uses nuclear magnetic resonance. Later, other groups duplicated the feat using photonic qubits. Typical implementations take 12 qubits. However, recent work at MIT and the University of Innsbruck can do the same trick with 5 atoms caught in an ion trap. The researchers believe their implementation will easily scale to larger numbers.

Each qubit is an atom and LASER pulses perform the logic operations. By removing an electron to make each atom positively charged, an electric field can exactly hold the positively charged ions in position only microns apart.

We’ve covered quantum computing before. We’ve even talked about the effect of practical quantum computing on encryption. You might also want to read more about the algorithm involved.

Photo credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT