EPSRC funding leads to quantum leap for secure communications

Abstract background of blue lines and glowing particles.

Successful ground-breaking UK research that opens the door to unhackable secure communications has been announced in a journal of the American Physical Society.

The research involves a phenomenon known as ‘quantum entanglement’, which is a key to securing future communications and data against hackers.

Quantum entanglement is when 2 particles, such as photons of light, remain connected even when separated by vast distances.

But the phenomenon is highly sensitive to bad weather, background noise and signal loss.

Surviving under extreme conditions

Heriot-Watt University physicists at the Institute of Photonic and Quantum Sciences, working with colleagues at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, have developed a way for quantum entanglement to survive under even extreme conditions of noise and loss.

The results are published in Physical Review X, a journal of the American Physical Society.

The project was part-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in a collaboration with other international funding agencies.

In 1 test, researchers were able to steer entangled photons through loss and noise conditions over a distance equivalent to 79km of fibre optic cable with 36% of ‘white noise’. A sort that could come from sunlight leaking in.

EPSRC funding leads to quantum leap for secure communications

An artist’s impression of high-dimensional entanglement being robust against noise. Credit: Vatshal Srivastav

Tolerating noise and loss

Mehul Malik, Professor of Physics at Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences explains:

Even the best optical fibres in the world will have a certain amount of loss per kilometre, so this is a big hurdle in making this form of quantum communication possible.

This is the first time it’s been shown that quantum entanglement can tolerate both noise and loss, and still survive in a strong form known as quantum steering.

Professor Malik and his research team at the Beyond Binary Quantum Information Lab improved the robustness of entanglement by using photons entangled in multiple dimensions (qudits), compared to the standard two-dimensional quantum units (qubits).

An important further finding was that increasing the number of dimensions in quantum entanglement reduces the time it takes to measure the results.

Flow of information

Professor Malik says:

The efficient and trusted flow of information lies at the heart of modern society today. In the future, quantum networks will provide a way to have ultra-secure, high-capacity communication.

To build such a ‘quantum’ internet, we need to be able to send quantum entanglement across real-world distances. And the only way you can do that is by tolerating noise and loss.

Quantum technology involves harnessing the physics of sub-atomic particles to develop ultra-high performance applications, including more powerful computing, more secure communications and more reliable navigation systems.

Professor Malik adds:

Quantum technology is very much an emerging area that’s being advanced by both academia and industry, and I think our research is incredibly relevant to both.

In academia, it can help advance fundamental research; and in industry, it could help future quantum networks operate over global distances.

Truly secure communications

Dr Liam Blackwell, Deputy Director for Quantum Technologies at EPSRC, said:

It is great to see this world leading advance by a UK research group in the understanding of quantum entanglement, taking us towards truly secure communications.

It is a great example of how the excellent quantum technologies researchers EPSRC supports are driving forward the science and technology that will deliver a quantum-enabled nation.

The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics was won for a breakthrough in quantum entanglement by 3 researchers in France, the US and Austria.

Further information

Quantum technology is a priority area for EPSRC. New quantum technologies, which exploit understanding and control of the sub-atomic, have moved from being an opportunity to an issue of national competitiveness and security. Quantum now sits at the heart of government ambitions to cement the UK as a ‘science superpower’.

It will impact challenges including:

  • national security
  • computational power
  • financial service
  • achieving net zero targets
  • healthcare
  • land use

EPSRC set up 4 academic hubs catalysed to work with industry, the National Quantum Computing Centre, 2 centres for doctoral training and many fellowships and research projects. It sustains the flow of science and engineering needed to create a quantum ready economy.

UK National Quantum Technologies Programme

The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) aims to ensure the successful transition of quantum technologies from laboratory to industry.

The programme is delivered by:

  • Innovate UK
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council
  • Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
  • National Physical Laboratory
  • Government Communications Headquarters
  • Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
  • Knowledge Transfer Network

The NQTP is set to invest £1 billion of public and private sector funds over its 10-year lifetime.

Visit the NQTP website for more information.

In total, 4 Quantum Technology Hubs were set up at the outset, each focusing on specific application areas with anticipated societal and economic impact.

The commercialising quantum technologies challenge (funded by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund) is part of the NQTP. It was launched to accelerate the development of quantum enabled products and services, removing barriers to productivity and competitiveness.

Top image:  Credit: shulz, E+ via Getty Images

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