NSF awards $2-million grant for increasing quantum-based communications by three orders of magnitude

UCLA Engineering has received a four-year, $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore secure quantum communications and memory.

The research is led by Chee Wei Wong, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and includes collaborators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Caltech.

Today’s communications run through optical networks, where data in the form of “bits” are carried by photons and electrons. Encrypting the information carried on these networks is completed by using a complex algorithm based on prime numbers. However, with the availability of increasing computing power, these networks have been vulnerable to hacking.

Quantum communications offers an alternative that is fundamentally unbreakable, protected by the laws of physics. Using a “qubit” as the information carrier, instead of a bit, would be secure by itself because of its quantum properties. Once generated from a light source, the qubit travels through the network and can read or received once, and only once, in its lifetime. What this means is that the intended receiver can “see” attempts to hack into the information stream as the qubit itself is the secure “key.”

While this is very promising, the transmission speed and volume of qubits through a network dramatically drops off with distance. The UCLA-led team proposes to boost the speed from one megabit per second over 50 kilometers by three orders of magnitude to four gigabits per second – which is equivalent to today’s data network speeds.

“We are excited by this investment in state-of-the-art quantum communication and hope that our chip-scale frequency-based modules can make a difference to the communications community,” Wong said.

“We are especially excited to be part of this collaboration because the breadth of capabilities could lead to deployable gigabit per second rates for long transmission distances,” said  Jeffrey Shapiro, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and a member of the team, along with MIT senior research scientist Franco Wong.

“Merging chip-scale photon sources with on-chip quantum memories is the next frontier in developing optical quantum networks, and we are very excited to work under this NSF EFRI program,” said team member Andrei Faraon, a professor of applied physics and materials science at Caltech.

The research team will incorporate fields of material science, nanofabrication and silicon photonics, quantum measurements, and quantum information theory during their study.

They have proposed four areas they will concentrate on:

* Encoding more information per photon by using high-dimensional qubits.

* Developing a qubit source on a chip with faster rates and better stability.

* Developing a method to store and send qubits on photons.

* And proposing new chip architectures for faster and secure information transmission.

Image: Artist’s conception of a quantum frequency comb. By Nicoletta Barolini