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Kai-Mei Fu
Kai-Mei Fu

Two University of Washington professors will explore how to make communications more secure through quantum mechanics after receiving a four-year, $2 million Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation grant from the National Science Foundation.

Their research focuses on photons — minute particles of light — that can carry information through fiber-optic cables. These photons are linked to a counterpart on the other end, a link called quantum entanglement. Encrypted data follows behind each encoded photon. Any attempt to eavesdrop or alter the information would alert the people involved. If the information is compromised, the quantum key needed to unlock the encryption no longer works, and the communication remains secure.

The problem is that this kind of communication is expensive, and can’t use the type of fiber-optic technology used for other forms of communication, so it is not possible to pass messages over long distances. The UW team, led by Kai-Mei Fu, is seeking to build a device called a quantum repeater that would make it easier to send messages in this fashion over longer distances.

Fu compared the process to the “Star Trek” transporter.

Arka Majumdar
Arka Majumdar

“It’s just like Star Trek, but with information,” explained Fu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and physics at UW. “We can’t amplify our quantum signal like we do today in fiber-optic cables, but what we can do is destroy the information at one network node and have it appear at another.”

Fu and Arka Majumdar, assistant professor of electrical engineering and physics at UW, will work alongside Maiken Mikkelsen at Duke University and Alejandro Rodriguez at Princeton University on this study.

Fu’s team is one of six awarded grants by NSF to study quantum communications. NSF seeks to make communications more secure and evolve cyber security technology. Fu said the military is very interested in this kind of technology. If the studies work out, Fu can see commercial applications for many types of businesses, especially those that need a high degree of security to pass along sensitive information.

“If it becomes practical, then we can focus on making it scalable over large distances to enable a global secure network,” Fu said.

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