Australia and France are partnering up on a project to build the next generation of silicon-based quantum supercomputers – but they are as hard to understand as they are to build.

At their most basic level, quantum computers represent a fundamentally new way of processing information as the most powerful computer we know how to build based on laws of physics as know them today.

At the moment it’s mostly theoretical but with the work of these countries and several tech companies, large and small – including the likes of IBM and Google – the race is on to make it a viable, commercial proposition.

So what is quantum computing?

Standard computers compute using 1s and 0s known as a 'bit'. This means that they can only produce one line of 1s and 0s at a time.

"One of things that makes quantum information more special is that can exist in a state known as superposition – whereas the classical bit can only be 0 or 1 a quantum bit can be 0 or 1 or in some state which is both at same time," John Morton, director of the UCL Quantum Science & Technology Institute, told BusinessCloud.

"That means you get a richer type of information.  When you have many different quantum bits – or qubits –  they can exist in a superposition of many different states at the same time. 

"If I had 300 qubits they could simultaneously exist in a higher number of states than there are atoms in the known universe. The challenge is how to control and harness that to perform useful computations."

This will all result in operations happening much faster with less energy than classical computers.

For example, the potential that quantum computing could have in AI and cyber security means researchers think it could help computers think even more closely to humans.

"Perhaps the most exciting use identified by Richard Feynman was around simulating materials and molecules at a much more accurate level than we can currently achieve," said Morton.

"This means designing drugs and catalysts more effectively, and things like solar panels and batteries, giving computers  a much bigger role in their development so we can rely less on labs."

The race is on to become the first to create a quantum computer that reliably works, and Morton says it's expected that this year researchers will reach the first big milestone, which will see a quantum supercomputer solve a problem that the world's current biggest supercomputer can't.

However it's estimated it will be at least a decade before quantum supercomputers can be used for the applications such as drug development and encryption.

France and Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Wednesday stating they will work in partnership to try and achieve this using a silicon-based approach - one of many different approaches being attempted.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President of France Emmanuel Macron described the partnership as the "tangible next step" in the development of a silicon quantum computer.

Australia's first quantum computing company, Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC) and France's research and development (R&D) organisation, the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA), will come together to focus on developing the technology and commercialisation opportunities.

"Quantum computing promises to revolutionise the IT industry," CQC2T director and SQC director and founder professor Michelle Simmons said.

"We have phenomenal leadership in silicon quantum computing across a range of platforms, and SQC is now moving rapidly to commercialise all these technologies."

SQC is aiming to create a 10-qubit integrated circuit prototype in silicon by 2022, as the precursor to a silicon-based quantum computer.

The CEA holds unique knowledge in the quantum properties of silicon nanodevices, recently yielding breakthroughs towards large-scale fabrication of qubits, the elementary bricks of future quantum processors.