Advancing secure communications: A better single-photon emitter for quantum cryptography

In a development that could make the advanced form of secure communications known as quantum cryptography more practical, University of Michigan researchers have demonstrated a simpler, more efficient single-photon emitter that can be made using traditional semiconductor processing techniques.

Single-photon emitters release one particle of light, or photon, at a time, as opposed to devices like lasers that release a stream of them. Single-photon emitters are essential for quantum cryptography, which keeps secrets safe by taking advantage of the so-called observer effect: The very act of an eavesdropper listening in jumbles the message. This is because in the quantum realm, observing a system always changes it.

For quantum cryptography to work, it’s necessary to encode the message—which could be a bank password or a piece of military intelligence, for example—just one photon at a time. That way, the sender and the recipient will know whether anyone has tampered with the message.

While the U-M researchers didn’t make the first single-photon emitter, they say their new device improves upon the current technology and is much easier to make.

“This thing is very, very simple. It is all based on silicon,” said Pallab Bhattacharya, the Charles M. Vest Distinguished University Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the James R. Mellor Professor of Engineering.

Bhattacharya, who leads this project, is a co-author of a paper on the work published in Nature Communications on April 9.

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