A British start-up has claimed a breakthrough in the development of quantum computers, creating a way for software to work across the next generation machines in a step towards making them more useful.

A consortium led by Cambridge-based Riverlane has developed a system that allows one piece of code to operate on different types of quantum computers, seen as a step towards building an “operating system for quantum computing”.

Major technology companies and researchers are racing to develop quantum computers, which will be many times more powerful than today’s “classical” machines and can be used for climate, medical and advanced materials research.

While quantum computers operate on the same theory, the approaches differ wildly. Google has claimed “quantum supremacy”, a milestone in which quantum computers exceed existing ones at certain tasks, with a so-called “superconducting” system that requires extremely low temperatures. 

Some use light signals while others seek to take advantage of silicon transistor technologies used in today’s computers.

Riverlane, with the National Physical Laboratory and a group of other quantum companies, says it has built an interface that allows the same computer program to be carried out on the different types of quantum computers, allowing programmers to hedge their bets or to try experiments on different types of machines.

“In the PC market and mobile market you can write one app and have it run [on different devices]. Quantum computing today is very fragmented,” said Steve Brierly, Riverlane’s chief executive.

“What we’re trying to do is concentrate the small number of people in the world who are really solving the key challenges.” 

Riverlane’s system, known as HAL, has been tested across different types of quantum computers at universities in the UK. Brierly said the company was hoping to encourage the likes of Google to participate.

Ultimately, the company plans to build an operating system that works across the machines, in a similar way to how Windows works across different personal computers.

Quantum computing takes advantage of a unique state of quantum mechanics, known as “superposition”, in a way that allows the computers to carry out much more advanced calculations. They are seen as particularly promising in simulating the real world, for example modelling the climate, discovering new drugs and finding new ways of producing chemicals.