While the short term focus is always on the next generation of the technology we already know about, it’s the brand new stuff that is still at the ‘far out’ stage that could really change things someday. Recently NIST and collaborators at Stanford have been showing off a prototype device for splitting photon beams that some say is a big step that could help turn quantum fiberoptics into reality.
The idea is to encode the data directly into photon quantum states and send those photons across fiber networks rather than using digital modulation etc. Since you can’t eavesdrop on a photon’s quantum state without changing it, you have guaranteed security. While encryption is good and always getting better, security can never be foolproof unless you can be certain data is not intercepted.
There have been some big hurdles in turning this into something workable though. The wavelengths for transmission through fiber and single-photon sensitive detectors are different and the detectors are too slow anyway. What NIST tested was a new device built around a lithium niobate crystal that splits the light into two slightly different colors, allowing two detectors to do the work of one – which may be adaptable to numbers greater than two. Being able to use more detectors widens the bottleneck that is throttling the speed of current quantum fiberoptic devices.
On the other hand though, how many applications really need this type of security? Only a few need more than what the best encryption can provide at any given time, so for this to really become commercially viable it’s going to need to be cheap too. But first things first I guess.
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