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Single-Photon Source Opens Door to Practical QKD

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SYDNEY, April 5, 2022 — Researchers have developed a new high-purity single-photon source that can operate at room temperature. The source marks an important step toward practical applications of quantum technology, such as highly secure communication based on quantum key distribution (QKD).

The single-photon source uniquely combines a 2D material called hexagonal boron nitride with an optical component known as a hemispherical solid immersion lens, which increases the source’s efficiency by a factor of six.

“We developed an on-demand way to generate photons with high purity in a scalable and portable system that operates at room temperature,” said Helen Zeng, a member of the research team from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. “Our single-photon source could advance the development of practical QKD systems and can be integrated into a variety of real-world quantum photonic applications.”
University of Technology Sydney PhD candidate Helen Zeng, pictured, and colleagues developed a high purity single photon source capable of room temperature operation, an important step toward practical applications of quantum technology. Courtesy of Helen Zeng, University of Technology Sydney.
University of Technology Sydney Ph.D. candidate Helen Zeng, pictured, and colleagues developed a high-purity single-photon source capable of room temperature operation, an important step toward practical applications of quantum technology. Courtesy of Helen Zeng/University of Technology Sydney.

Zeng and colleagues from Australia’s University of New South Wales and Macquarie University demonstrated the single-photon source’s ability to produce more than 10 million single photons per second at room temperature. They also incorporated the single-photon source into a full portable device that can perform QKD.

QKD enables tamper-proof encryption for data communication by using the quantum properties of light to generate secure random keys for encrypting and decrypting data. QKD systems require robust and bright sources that emit light as a string of single photons. However, most of today’s single-photon sources don’t perform well unless operated at cryogenic temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero, which hampers their practicality.

While hexagonal boron nitride has previously been deployed to create a single-photon source that operates at room temperature, until now, researchers had not been able to achieve the necessary efficiency for real-world applications.

“Most approaches used to improve hexagonal boron nitride single-photon sources rely on precisely positioning the emitter or using nanofabrication,” Zeng said. “This makes the devices complex, difficult to scale, and not easy to mass-produce.”

Zeng and colleagues set out to create a better solution using a solid immersion lens to better focus the photons coming from the single-photon emitter, allowing more photons to be detected. The lenses are commercially available and easy to manufacture.
The single-photon source and confocal microscope are housed inside a robust package that measures just 500 × 500 millimeters and weighs around 10 kilograms. Courtesy of Helen Zeng, University of Technology Sydney.
The single-photon source and confocal microscope are housed inside a robust package that measures just 500 × 500 mm and weighs around 10 kg. Courtesy of Helen Zeng/University of Technology Sydney.

The team combined its new single-photon source with a custom-built portable confocal microscope that can measure the single photons at room temperature, creating a system that can perform QKD. The single-photon source and confocal microscope are housed inside a robust package that measures just 500 × 500 mm and weighs around 10 kg. The package is also engineered to deal with vibration and stray light.

“Our streamlined device is easier to use and much smaller than traditional optical table setups, which often take up entire labs,” Zeng said. “This allows the system to be used with a range of quantum computing schemes. It could also be adapted to work with existing telecommunications infrastructure.”

Tests of the new single-photon source showed that it could achieve a single-photon collection rate of 107 Hz while maintaining excellent purity, meaning each pulse had a low probability of containing more than one photon. It also showed exceptional stability over many hours of continuous operation. The researchers also demonstrated the system’s ability to perform QKD under realistic conditions, showing that secured QKD with 20-MHz repetition rates would be feasible over several kilometers.

Having established proof that their portable device can perform complex quantum cryptography, the researchers can perform further testing of the technology’s robustness, stability, and efficiency during encryption. They also plan to use the new source to perform QKD in real-world conditions rather than inside the lab.

“We are now ready to transform these scientific advances in quantum 2D materials into technology-ready products,” said Igor Aharonovich of the University of Technology Sydney, who led the project.

The research was published in Optics Letters (www.doi.org/10.1364/OL.454450).

Photonics.com
Apr 2022
GLOSSARY
quantum
Smallest amount into which the energy of a wave can be divided. The quantum is proportional to the frequency of the wave. See photon.
source
A physical source of radiation, as contrasted to illuminant. See illuminant.
Research & Technologylaserslight sourcesquantumsingle photonquantum key distributionencryptionquantum communicationssingle-photon sourcesourceopticsmaterials2Dboron nitridehexagonal boron nitrideroom temperatureUniversity of Technology SyndeyUniversity of New South WalesAustraliaAsia-Pacific

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