The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing $12 million in six teams over four years to develop quantum systems that may be used as a way to encrypt data and communications, the foundation said August 8.

The systems NSF has in mind would try to encode photons (light particles) with information that travels through fiber optic cables and would be immutably linked to a photon counterpart on the other side of communications, a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. A stream of encrypted data would follow each encoded photon.

Under this idea, any attempt to intercept, tamper with, or divert the data would alter the entangled photon’s quantum state, which would be evident upon arrival at the destination. If the compromised photon is detected, then the quantum key needed to unlock the encryption would no longer work and the communication would remain secure, the NSF said.

This research reward program is directed by the NSF’s Office of Emerging Frontiers and Multidisciplinary Activities (EFMA).

“Investments in frontier, and potentially transformative, fundamental science and engineering research, such as quantum communication, are essential to compete in the global innovation economy,” Sohi Rastegar, head of EFMA, said in a statement.

The six interdisciplinary teams covered under the award include 26 researchers at 15 institutions working under the Advancing Communications Quantum Information Research in Engineering (ACQUIRE) research area in the NSF Directorate for Engineering’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program.

EFRI was established in 2007 “to inspire and enable researchers to expand the limits of knowledge in the service of grand engineering challenges and national needs,” the NSF said.

This prospective communication system is currently able to be demonstrated in laboratories at cryogenic (very low) temperatures with large energy-intensive equipment. The ACQUIRE researchers will have four years to attempt to engineer this quantum communication system on a chip that can operate at room temperature with low energy in a fiber optic network and entangled photons.

Although the research presents large challenges, “a fundamental understanding of quantum physics and optical materials, as well as recent progress in nanoscale photonic integration, have brought communication systems scaled to the quantum level within reach,” the NSF said.

If the research projects are successful, the result will start to realize the hardware needed for secure and efficient quantum communications and the findings would also advance other quantum sensing and computing research.

“A growing interest in quantum photonics and a new understanding of quantum physics and nanomaterials make this the perfect time to pursue significant engineering advances in quantum communication,” Dominique Dagenais, NSF program director who coordinated the ACQUIRE projects, said in a statement.

The six EFRI teams are led by and focus on:

  • Dirk Englund of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scalable quantum communications with error-corrected semiconductor qubits;
  • Kai-Mei Fu of the University of Washington, an integrated quantum communication transmission node;
  • Alexander Gaeta of Columbia University, development of heterogenous platform for chip-based quantum information applications;
  • Qiang Lin of the University of Rochester, a scalable integrated quantum photonic interconnect;
  • Shayan Mookherjea of the University of California-San Diego, microchip photonic devices for quantum communication over fiber; and
  • Hong Tang of Yale University, integrated nanophotonic solid state memories for telecom wavelength quantum repeaters.