Predictions from quantum physics have been confirmed by countless experiments, but no one has yet detected the quantum physical effect of entanglement directly with the naked eye. This should now be possible thanks to an experiment proposed by a team around a theoretical physicist at the University of Basel. The experiment might pave the way for new applications in quantum physics.
Quantum physics is more than 100 years old, but even today is still sometimes met with wonderment. This applies, for example, to entanglement, a quantum physical phenomenon that can be observed between atoms or photons (light particles): when two of these particles are entangled, the physical state of the two particles can no longer be described independently, only the total system that both particles form together.
Despite this peculiarity, entangled photons are part of the real world, as has been proven in many experiments. And yet no one has observed entangled photons directly. This is because only single or a handful of entangled photons can be produced with the available technology, and this number is too low for the human eye to perceive these photons as light.
Entangled photons amplified 100-fold
Nicolas Sangouard, a theoretical physicist at the University of Basel, together with two quantum physicists from Delft, Netherlands, and Innsbruck, Austria, has now shown in the scientific journal Optica how it may be possible to detect entangled photons directly. The basic idea of the experiment is that an entangled photon is generated and then amplified using a special technique, without destroying the quantum physical entanglement.
In the process, about 100 entangled photons are present, which, according to current knowledge, is the precise number needed to create the impression of light in humans. But although hundreds of photons reach the retina, there are also significant losses: only about seven actually reach one of the 120 million light-detecting rods of the retina. These photons then generate the nerve impulse that triggers the perception of light in the brain.
Experiment opens door for quantum encryption
Researchers at the Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI), the University of Vienna, and the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona have achieved a new milestone in quantum physics: they were able to entangle three particles of light in a high-dimensional quantum property related to the “twist” of their wavefront structure. Just like Schrödinger’s famous cat that is simultaneously dead and alive, all previous demonstrations of multi-particle entanglement have been with quantum objects in two discrete levels, or dimensions.
The twisted photons used in the Vienna experiment have no such limit to their dimensionality, and can simultaneously exist in three or more quantum states. The three-photon entangled state created by the Vienna group breaks this previous record of dimensionality, and brings to light a new form of asymmetric entanglement that has not been observed before. The results from their experiment appear in the journal Nature Photonics.
Entanglement is a counterintuitive property of quantum physics that has long puzzled scientists and philosophers alike. Entangled quanta of light seem to exert an influence on each other, irrespective of how much distance is between them. Consider for example a metaphorical quantum ice dancer, who has the uncanny ability to pirouette both clockwise and counter-clockwise simultaneously. A pair of entangled ice-dancers whirling away from each other would then have perfectly correlated directions of rotation: If the first dancer twirls clockwise then so does her partner, even if skating in ice rinks on two different continents. “The entangled photons in our experiment can be illustrated by not two, but three such ice dancers, dancing a perfectly synchronized quantum mechanical ballet,” explains Mehul Malik, the first author of the paper. “Their dance is also a bit more complex, with two of the dancers performing yet another correlated movement in addition to pirouetting.
This type of asymmetric quantum entanglement has been predicted before on paper, but we are the first to actually create it in the lab.”
From fundamentals to applications: Layered quantum cryptography
The scientists created their three-photon entangled state by using yet another quantum mechanical trick: they combined two pairs of high-dimensionally entangled photons in such a manner that it became impossible to ascertain where a particular photon came from. Besides serving as a test bed for studying many fundamental concepts in quantum mechanics, multi-photon entangled states such as these have applications ranging from quantum computing to quantum encryption.
Along these lines, the authors of this study have developed a new type of quantum cryptographic protocol using their state that allows different layers of information to be shared asymmetrically among multiple parties with unconditional security. “The experiment opens the door for a future quantum Internet with more than two partners and it allows them to communicate more than one bit per photon,” says Anton Zeilinger.
Many technical challenges remain before such a quantum communication protocol becomes a practical reality. However, given the rapid progress in quantum technologies today, it is only a matter of time before this type of entanglement finds a place in the quantum networks of the future.
Learn more: Three “twisted” photons in three dimensions