Washington, August 20 : Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), have reported a new way to fine-tune the light coming from quantum dots by manipulating them with pairs of lasers.
Their technique could significantly improve quantum dots as a source of pairs of "entangled" photons, a property with important applications in quantum information technologies.
The accomplishment could accelerate development of powerful advanced cryptography applications, projected to be a key 21st-century technology.
Entangled photons are a peculiar consequence of quantum mechanics. Tricky to generate, they remain interconnected even when separated by large distances. Merely observing one instantaneously affects the properties of the other.
The entanglement can be used in quantum communication to pass an encryption key that is by its nature completely secure, as any attempt to eavesdrop or intercept the key would be instantly detected.
One goal of the NIST-JQI team is to develop quantum dots as a convenient source of entangled photons.
Quantum dots are nanoscale regions of a semiconductor material similar to the material in computer processors but with special properties due to their tiny dimensions.
Though they can be composed of tens of thousands of atoms, quantum dots in many ways behave almost as if they were single atoms.
When energized, a quantum dot emits photons, or "particles" of light, just as a solitary atom does.
But imperfections in the shape of a quantum dot cause what should be overlapping energy levels to separate. This ruins the delicate balance of the ideal state required to emit entangled photons.
To overcome this problem, the NIST-JQI team uses lasers to precisely control the energy levels of quantum dots, just as physicists have been doing with actual single atoms since the mid-1970s and, much more recently, with the artificial quantum dot variety.
With their customized set-up, which includes two lasers-one shining from above the quantum dot and the other illuminating it from the side-the researchers were able to manipulate energy states in a quantum dot and directly measure its emissions.
By adjusting the intensity of the laser beams, they were able to correct for imperfection-caused variations and generate more ideal signals.
In doing so, the team was the first to demonstrate that laser-tuned quantum dots can efficiently generate photons one at a time, as required for quantum cryptography and other applications.
While the device currently still requires quite cold temperatures and sits in a liquid helium bath, it is compact enough to fit in the palm of one's hand-an elegant setup that could be eventually implemented in quantum cryptography applications.