Prototype device enables photon-photon interactions at room temperature for quantum computing

June 19, 2017 by Larry Hardesty
A micrograph of the MIT researchers’ new device, with a visualization of electrical-energy measurements and a schematic of the device layout superimposed on it. Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ordinarily, light particles—photons—don't interact. If two photons collide in a vacuum, they simply pass through each other.

An efficient way to make photons interact could open new prospects for both classical optics and , an experimental technology that promises large speedups on some types of calculations.

In recent years, physicists have enabled photon-photon interactions using atoms of rare elements cooled to very low temperatures.

But in the latest issue of Physical Review Letters, MIT researchers describe a new technique for enabling photon-photon interactions at room temperature, using a silicon crystal with distinctive patterns etched into it. In physics jargon, the crystal introduces "nonlinearities" into the transmission of an optical signal.

"All of these approaches that had atoms or atom-like particles require low temperatures and work over a narrow frequency band," says Dirk Englund, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and senior author on the new paper. "It's been a holy grail to come up with methods to realize single-photon-level nonlinearities at room temperature under ambient conditions."

Joining Englund on the paper are Hyeongrak Choi, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and Mikkel Heuck, who was a postdoc in Englund's lab when the work was done and is now at the Technical University of Denmark.

Photonic independence

Quantum computers harness a strange physical property called "superposition," in which a quantum particle can be said to inhabit two contradictory states at the same time. The spin, or magnetic orientation, of an electron, for instance, could be both up and down at the same time; the polarization of a photon could be both vertical and horizontal.

If a string of quantum bits—or qubits, the quantum analog of the bits in a classical computer—is in superposition, it can, in some sense, canvass multiple solutions to the same problem simultaneously, which is why quantum computers promise speedups.

Most experimental qubits use ions trapped in oscillating magnetic fields, superconducting circuits, or—like Englund's own research—defects in the crystal structure of diamonds. With all these technologies, however, superpositions are difficult to maintain.

Because photons aren't very susceptible to interactions with the environment, they're great at maintaining superposition; but for the same reason, they're difficult to control. And quantum computing depends on the ability to send control signals to the qubits.

That's where the MIT researchers' new work comes in. If a single photon enters their , it will pass through unimpeded. But if two photons—in the right quantum states—try to enter the device, they'll be reflected back.

The of one of the photons can thus be thought of as controlling the quantum state of the other. And has established that simple quantum "gates" of this type are all that is necessary to build a universal quantum computer.

Unsympathetic resonance

The researchers' device consists of a long, narrow, rectangular silicon crystal with regularly spaced holes etched into it. The holes are widest at the ends of the rectangle, and they narrow toward its center. Connecting the two middle holes is an even narrower channel, and at its center, on opposite sides, are two sharp concentric tips. The pattern of holes temporarily traps light in the device, and the concentric tips concentrate the of the trapped light.

The researchers prototyped the device and showed that it both confined light and concentrated the light's electric field to the degree predicted by their theoretical models. But turning the device into a quantum gate would require another component, a dielectric sandwiched between the tips. (A dielectric is a material that is ordinarily electrically insulating but will become polarized—all its positive and negative charges will align in the same direction—when exposed to an electric field.)

When a light wave passes close to a dielectric, its electric field will slightly displace the electrons of the dielectric's atoms. When the electrons spring back, they wobble, like a child's swing when it's pushed too hard. This is the nonlinearity that the researchers' system exploits.

The size and spacing of the holes in the device are tailored to a specific light frequency—the device's "resonance frequency." But the nonlinear wobbling of the dielectric's electrons should shift that frequency.

Ordinarily, that shift is mild enough to be negligible. But because the sharp tips in the researchers' device concentrate the electric fields of entering photons, they also exaggerate the shift. A single photon could still get through the device. But if two photons attempted to enter it, the shift would be so dramatic that they'd be repulsed.

Practical potential

The device can be configured so that the dramatic shift in resonance frequency occurs only if the photons attempting to enter it have particular quantum properties—specific combinations of polarization or phase, for instance. The quantum state of one photon could thus determine the way in which the other photon is handled, the basic requirement for a quantum gate.

Englund emphasizes that the new research will not yield a working quantum computer in the immediate future. Too often, light entering the prototype is still either scattered or absorbed, and the quantum states of the photons can become slightly distorted. But other applications may be more feasible in the near term. For instance, a version of the device could provide a reliable source of single photons, which would greatly abet a range of research in and communications.

"This work is quite remarkable and unique because it shows strong light-matter interaction, localization of light, and relatively long-time storage of photons at such a tiny scale in a semiconductor," says Mohammad Soltani, a nanophotonics researcher in Raytheon BBN Technologies' Quantum Information Processing Group. "It can enable things that were questionable before, like nonlinear single- gates for information. It works at , it's solid-state, and it's compatible with semiconductor manufacturing. This work is among the most promising to date for practical devices, such as devices."

Explore further: Unpolarized single-photon generation with true randomness from diamond

More information: Hyeongrak Choi et al. Self-Similar Nanocavity Design with Ultrasmall Mode Volume for Single-Photon Nonlinearities, Physical Review Letters (2017). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.118.223605

Related Stories

New single-photon microwave source developed

August 25, 2016

A collaboration including researchers at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has developed a tuneable, high-efficiency, single-photon microwave source. The technology has great potential for applications in quantum computing ...

Researchers develop ideal single-photon source

September 7, 2015

With the help of a semiconductor quantum dot, physicists at the University of Basel have developed a new type of light source that emits single photons. For the first time, the researchers have managed to create a stream ...

First step towards photonic quantum network

January 25, 2017

Advanced photonic nanostructures are well on their way to revolutionising quantum technology for quantum networks based on light. Researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute have now developed the first building blocks needed ...

Recommended for you

Making ferromagnets stronger by adding non-magnetic elements

June 23, 2017

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory discovered that they could functionalize magnetic materials through a thoroughly unlikely method, by adding amounts of the virtually non-magnetic element scandium ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

javjav
not rated yet Jun 19, 2017
Great advance but very confusing title. With this technique Photons do not interact between them , each one only interacts with the material.
classic_future
1 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2017
Okay, right away, I don't understand the concept of photons that "simply pass through each other." It would make way more sense if photons "simply" bounce off each other and fly the opposite way, if colliding in a vacuum. They're already going the speed of light, so there's no elasticity. Please, show me the evidence and research!
swordsman
not rated yet Jun 20, 2017
This is an excellent approach to the modern comprehension of field and matter interacting. Yes, two photons pass through one another (without change) by the law of Superposition, which is not a new concept by many decades. Now, finally, matter is now considered as an electronic system as was the original Planck atom model in the year 1900. Each of the two photons act primarily on the electrons in an atom or molecule, and the atom is analyzed as and electronic system rather than "matter". This, in turn, produces new electromagnetic waves that add to those of the photons. Not a new concept by far, but realistic, and with the newer methodology of measurements of actions at the short wavelengths of the fields will most likely lead to many new concepts. I have proposed analyzing atomic interactions utilizing electronic atom models and computer analysis ("Analyzing Atoms Using the SPICE Computer Program", Computing in Science and Engineering, Vol. 14, No. 3, May/June 2012). TBC.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.