Tiny quantum chip enables secure communications

Monday, 25 November, 2019

Tiny quantum chip enables secure communications

A research team led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has developed a quantum communication chip that is said to be 1000 times smaller than current quantum set-ups, while offering the same high security that quantum technology is known for. Their work has been described in the journal Nature Photonics.

The world’s biggest tech companies, such as Google and IBM, are racing to develop quantum supercomputers that would revolutionise computing at speeds now inconceivable. One highly anticipated strength of quantum technology lies in cryptography — the art of secret communication.

With the proliferation of internet services, emails and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Snapchat and Telegram have created their own secured channels for communication, known as ‘classical channels’. In contrast, ‘quantum channels’ that carry information have security protocols that are integrated into the encrypted data. Each channel is uniquely different from the next, reducing or even eliminating the risk of information being intercepted or leaked during transmission.

Now NTU scientists have developed a tiny chip, roughly 3 mm in size, that uses quantum communication algorithms to provide enhanced security compared to existing standards. It does this by integrating passwords within the information that is being delivered, forming a secure ‘quantum key’. After the information is received, it is destroyed along with the key, making it an extremely secure form of communication.

“Almost all digital platforms and repositories require users to input their passwords and biometric data, and as long as this is the case, it could be eavesdropped on or deciphered,” said NTU Professor Liu Ai Qun, who co-led the research. “Quantum technology eliminates this as both the password and information are integrated within the message being sent, forming a quantum key.”

Co-leader NTU Associate Professor Kwek Leong Chuan explained that quantum communication works by using randomised strings of code to encrypt the information, which can only be opened by the intended recipient with the correct ‘key’. There is no need for additional passwords or biometric data to be transmitted, which is the standard practice in current forms of communication.

“It is like sending a secured letter,” Assoc Prof Kwek said. “Imagine that the person who wrote the letter locked the message in an envelope with its ‘key’ also inside it. The recipient needs the same key to open it. Quantum technology ensures that the key distribution is secure, preventing any tampering to the key.”

The NTU chip needs 1000 times less space than current quantum communication set-ups that can be as big as a refrigerator or even take up the space of an entire room or office floor. This opens doors for more secure communication technologies that can be deployed in compact devices such as smartphones, tablets and smart watches. It will also be cost-effective as it uses standard industry materials such as silicon, which also makes it easy to manufacture.

The NTU team is now looking to develop a hybrid network of traditional optical communication systems and quantum communication systems, which should improve the compatibility of quantum technologies that can be used in a wider range of applications such as internet connectivity. Overall, they believe their work will lay the foundation for better encryption methods for online transactions and electronic communication.

“This is the future of communication security and our research brings us closer to quantum computing and communication,” Prof Liu said. “It will help spark the creation of next-generation communication devices, as well as enhance digital services such as online financial portals of banks, and digital government services.”

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