Quantum leap: setting standards for quantum technologies

- Ottawa, Ontario

NRC Metrology, the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology test a new measurement approach for quantum technologies

International system of metric units

What does a length of wire have in common with a pound of butter? Or with a light bulb and dose of medication? They're all measured according to the International System of Units, or SI units, the modern metric system of measurement used in the regulations and standards that keeps societies and economies glued together. Without this essential system, the world order would fragment and interconnected life as we know it would crumble.

Our daily lives rely on a global information technology infrastructure for communications and internet connectivity. Its functionality depends on the calibration of devices and on documented standards to ensure stable and reliable performance. Fortunately, metrology institutes such as the Metrology Research Centre at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) maintain top-level national standards. These standards support interconnected global technologies by providing a reference for product calibrations and device characterization, known as SI traceability.

Microchips that generate, transport, process and detect light (or packets of photons) are called integrated photonics and are used widely today in optical communications and fibre connections in data centres. Within the next few decades, quantum photonic integrated circuits will redefine these information networks and incorporate quantum light sources and detectors, which generate and detect single photons.

While many commercial quantum communications products continue to emerge, few accompanying measurement standards exist. Before users fully trust quantum communications and integrate them into current infrastructures, the technologies must be defined by industry-wide measurement and performance standards to ensure reliable system performance.

To this end, the NRC has partnered with the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Colorado. The goal of their 3-year project, titled Advanced Quantum State Measurements for Next Generation Telecommunication Standards, is to devise a measurement technique for quantum single-photon sources traceable to the International System of Units.

This collaboration is funded by the NRC's High-throughput and Secure Networks (HTSN) Challenge program, which supports NRC researchers and external partners in developing technologies to enable the implementation of next-generation, and next-after-next-generation, high-speed telecommunication networks.

Virtual reality futuristic technology and circuit board

"This research will provide metrological solutions for quantum-based communications, providing a foundation to improve the performance, reliability and security of future communication networks for Canadians," says Lynne Genik, Director of the HTSN Challenge program.

The first wave of quantum technology is used today in devices such as MRI scanners, electron microscopes, lasers and solar cells. The emerging wave has the potential to transform almost every industry and bring us new applications such as ultra-fast and far-reaching telecommunications, connected vehicles, and automated scalable device manufacturing.

Teaming up for results

"We're working on a unique measurement approach for single-photon sources for quantum photonics technologies," says Angela Gamouras, a Research Officer with the NRC’s Quantum and Nanotechnologies Research Centre (formerly with the NRC’s Metrology Research Centre). "Collaborating with CU Boulder and NIST is a first step toward characterizing these types of devices that will likely become part of our infrastructure."

The NRC's quantum optics group have more than 2 decades of experience in developing quantum dot single-photon sources for applications such as secure communications and information processing. Angela's work will combine these sources with a specialized low-light sensor being developed by CU Boulder and NIST.

"We're taking Canadian-developed devices and applying them in the creation of quantum photonics measurement standards," she says. "Our collaborators in Boulder have developed an on-chip sensor that directly measures the optical power of light. We will push the sensitivity of this type of detector to the limit by trying to directly measure the optical power emitted by an NRC quantum dot single-photon source."

Both CU Boulder and NIST have a strong history of detector design as well as top-of-the-line fabrication facilities. This gives the NRC access to the necessary superconductor and cryogenics electronics fabrication facilities and state-of-the-art carbon nanotube deposition facilities.

Over the next year, Angela will be working with CU Boulder and NIST to test optical power measurements with the newly designed light sensor. Once everything is in place at the NRC lab, their CU Boulder collaborator will work with NRC researchers there. "We'll integrate the low-light sensor and single-photon source into the measurement system," she says. "If all goes well, we will then perform the first direct optical power characterization of a single-photon source."

The long-term objective of this work is to incorporate component and calibration standards for verifying system performance into integrated chip designs. The ultimate goal is to deploy self-calibrating or self-validating devices across Canada's quantum internet infrastructure, ensuring reliable and stable quantum networks.

If you're interested in what's ahead in the world of integrated photonics, read the recently published article in the Journal of Physics: Photonics, 2022 Roadmap on Integrated Photonics.

Learn more about other collaborative R&D programs and initiatives that have been funded through the NRC.

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