We look at the rise of quantum computing in this second film from our series about technology spin-offs from fundamental physics research. Such devices, which would exploit superposition, entanglement and other quantum phenomena to perform super-fast calculations, have the potential for some amazing feats. But in the pursuit of a practical quantum computer, big challenges still remain.

The film was recorded at the University of Sussex in the UK where physicists are developing an approach known as ion trap quantum computing. "A normal computer has bits and these bits encode information, so numbers and words are encoded into bits which are zero or one," explains Winfried Hensinger, head of the Ion Quantum Technology Group. "In a quantum computer, instead of having bits you have quantum bits, which can be in a superposition of zero and one – so they can be zero and one at the same time." In the film, Hensinger provides a tour of his lab, describing how his group cools atoms down to temperatures approaching absolute zero, then traps them inside vacuum systems.

This series of films is concerned with technologies that have the potential to transform lives and societies. In the case of quantum computing, some of the most exciting applications might lie in the fields of biology and biochemistry, an idea that is explored in the film by the science writer John Gribbin. "When we have a quantum computer, we will be able to make very accurate computer models of processes involving chemical reactions, up to and including biological reactions," he explains. "We will much better understand how proteins work, how genes work, and that will have tremendous implications in developing both the chemical and the biochemical technology of the future".

This is a view shared by Laurence Pearl, a structural biologist at Sussex, who believes that the development of quantum computers is likely to attract the attention of pharmaceuticals companies, which could use them in the development of new drugs. "If it's going to cost you £10 million to predict the drug that was going to work rather than a billion to actually develop the drug that's going to work, I think drugs companies would go for that," he says.

This film is one of a three-part series exploring some of the most promising technologies that are emerging from physics research. You can read about other physics spin-offs by downloading the special 25th anniversary issue of Physics World as a free PDF.