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UNIGE and ID Quantique develop record-breaking single-photon detectors

14 Mar 2023

Geneva-based group say high-performance detectors will combat optical network eavesdropping.

A team from UNIGE, the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and neighbouring high-tech firm ID Quantique, a developer of quantum key distribution systems, quantum safe network encryption, single photon counters, have developed single-photon detectors with “unprecedented performance”, which the partners add “open new perspectives for quantum cryptography.”

The aim of such technologies is to combat data theft. The team asserts that “quantum physics has the solution. Its theories make it possible to encode information in single photons and to circulate them in an optical fibre in a highly secure way.”

However, the widespread use of this telecommunications technology is limited by the performance of the single-photon detectors. The team from Geneva has increased their speed by a factor of 20. This innovation, described last week in Nature Photonics, enables “unprecedented performances in quantum key distribution, says the development team.

Example application

Buying a train ticket, booking a taxi, getting a meal delivered: these are all transactions carried out daily via mobile applications. These are based on payment systems involving an exchange of secret information between the user and the bank.

To do this, the bank generates a public key, which is transmitted to their customer, and a private key, which it keeps secret. With the public key, the user can modify the information, make it unreadable and send it to the bank. With the private key, the bank can decipher it.

This system is now threatened by the power of quantum computers. To resolve this, quantum cryptography – or quantum key distribution (QKD) – is the best option. It allows two parties to generate shared secret keys and transmit them via optical fibres in a highly secure way.

This is because the laws of quantum mechanics state that a measurement affects the state of the system being measured. Thus, if a spy tries to measure the photons to steal the key, the information will be instantly altered and the interception revealed.

Current limitations

One limitation to the application of this system is the speed of the single-photon detectors used to receive the information. After each detection, the detectors must recover for about 30 nanoseconds, which limits the throughput of the secret keys to about 10 megabits per second.

A UNIGE team led by Hugo Zbinden, associate professor in the Department of Applied Physics at the UNIGE Faculty of Science, has succeeded in overcoming this limit by developing a detector with better performance. This work was carried out in collaboration with the team of Félix Bussières from the company ID Quantique, which is a spin-off from the university.

‘‘Currently, the fastest detectors for our application are superconducting nanowire single-photon detectors,’’ saidFadri Grünenfelder, a former doctoral student in the Department of Applied Physics at the UNIGE Faculty of Science and first author of the study.

‘‘These devices contain a tiny superconducting wire cooled to -272°C. If a single photon hits it, it heats up and ceases to be superconducting for a short time, thus generating a detectable electrical signal. When the wire becomes cold again, another photon can be detected.’’

Record performance

By integrating 14 nanowires into their detector, the researchers were able to achieve record detection rates. ‘‘Our detectors can count twenty times faster than a single-wire device,’’ said Zbinden. ‘‘If two photons arrive within a short time in these new detectors, they can touch different wires and both be detected. With a single wire this is impossible’’. The nanowires used are also shorter, which helps to decrease their recovery time.

Using these sensors, scientists were able to generate a secret key at a rate of 64 megabits per second over 10 km of fibre optic cable. This rate is high enough to secure, for example, a videoconference with several participants. This is five times the performance of current technology over this distance. As a bonus, these new detectors are no more complex to produce than the current devices available on the market.

Universe Kogaku America Inc.Hyperion OpticsAlluxaLASEROPTIK GmbHBerkeley Nucleonics CorporationSPECTROGON ABECOPTIK
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