Scientists have come a bit closer to achieving the "Star Trek" feat of teleportation.
No one is galaxy-hopping, or even beaming people around, but for the first time, information has been teleported between two separate atoms across a distance of a meter — about a yard.
This is a significant milestone in a field known as quantum information processing, said Christopher Monroe of the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, who led the effort.
Teleportation is one of nature's most mysterious forms of transport: Quantum information, such as the spin of a particle or the polarization of a photon, is transferred from one place to another, without traveling through any physical medium.
It has previously been achieved between photons (a unit, or quantum, of electromagnetic radiation, such as light) over very large distances, between photons and ensembles of atoms, and between two nearby atoms through the intermediary action of a third.
None of those, however, provides a feasible means of holding and managing quantum information over long distances.
Now the JQI team, along with colleagues at the University of Michigan, has succeeded in teleporting a quantum state directly from one atom to another over a meter.
That capability is necessary for workable quantum information systems because they will require memory storage at both the sending and receiving ends of the transmission.
In the Jan. 23 issue of the journal Science, the scientists report that, by using their protocol, atom-to-atom teleported information can be recovered with perfect accuracy about 90 percent of the time — and that figure can be improved.
"Our system has the potential to form the basis for a large-scale 'quantum repeater' that can network quantum memories over vast distances," Monroe said. "Moreover, our methods can be used in conjunction with quantum bit operations to create a key component needed for quantum computation."
A quantum computer could perform certain tasks, such as encryption-related calculations and searches of giant databases, considerably faster than conventional machines. The effort to devise a working model is a matter of intense interest worldwide.
Teleportation and entanglement
Physicist Richard Feynman is quoted as having said that "if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."
Or sometimes he is cited thusly: "I think I can safely say that nobody understand quantum mechanics."
Nonetheless, here is how the University of Maryland describes Monroe's work.
Teleportation works because of a remarkable quantum phenomenon called entanglement which only occurs on the atomic and subatomic scale.
Once two objects are put in an entangled state, their properties are inextricably entwined.
Although those properties are inherently unknowable until a measurement is made, measuring either one of the objects instantly determines the characteristics of the other, no matter how far apart they are.
The JQI team set out to entangle the quantum states of two individual ytterbium ions so that information embodied in the condition of one could be teleported to the other.
Each ion was isolated in a separate high-vacuum trap, suspended in an invisible cage of electromagnetic fields and surrounded by metal electrodes.
The researchers identified two readily discernible ground (lowest energy) states of the ions that would serve as the alternative "bit" values of an atomic quantum bit, or qubit.
Conventional electronic bits (short for binary digits), such as those in a personal computer, are always in one of two states: off or on, 0 or 1, high or low voltage, etc.
Quantum bits, however, can be in some combination, called a "superposition," of both states at the same time, like a coin that is simultaneously heads and tails — until a measurement is made.
It is this phenomenon that gives quantum computation its extraordinary power.
Laser pulse initiates process
At the start of the experimental process, each ion (designated A and B) is initialized in a given ground state.
Then ion A is irradiated with a specially tailored microwave burst from one of its cage electrodes, placing the ion in some desired superposition of the two qubit states — in effect "writing" into "memory" the information to be teleported.
Immediately thereafter, both ions are excited by a picosecond (one trillionth of a second) laser pulse.
The pulse duration is so short that each ion emits only a single photon as it sheds the energy gained by the laser and falls back to one or the other of the two qubit ground states.
Depending on which one it falls into, the ion emits one of two kinds of photons of slightly different wavelengths (designated red and blue) that correspond to the two atomic qubit states.
It is the relationship between those photons that will eventually provide the telltale signal that entanglement has occurred.
Each emitted photon is captured by a lens, routed to a separate strand of fiber-optic cable, and carried to a 50-50 beam splitter where it is equally probable for the photon to pass straight through the splitter or to be reflected.
On either side of the beam splitter are detectors that can record the arrival of a single photon.
Before it reaches the beam splitter, each photon is in an unknowable superposition of states. After encountering the beam splitter, however, each takes on specific characteristics.
As a result, for each pair of photons, four color combinations are possible — blue-blue, red-red, blue-red and red-blue — as well as one of two polarizations: horizontal or vertical.
In nearly all of those variations, the photons either cancel each other out or both end up in the same detector.
But there is one — and only one — combination in which both detectors will record a photon at exactly the same time.
In that case, however, it is physically impossible to tell which ion produced which photon because it cannot be known whether the photon arriving at a detector passed through the beam splitter or was reflected by it.
Thanks to the peculiar laws of quantum mechanics, that inherent uncertainty projects the ions into an entangled state.
That is, each ion is in a superposition of the two possible qubit states.
The simultaneous detection of photons at the detectors does not occur often, so the laser stimulus and photon emission process has to be repeated many thousands of times per second.
But when a photon appears in each detector, it is an unambiguous signature of entanglement between the ions.
When an entangled condition is identified, the scientists immediately take a measurement of ion A. The act of measurement forces it out of superposition and into a definite condition: one of the two qubit states.
But because ion A's state is irreversibly tied to ion B's, the measurement also forces B into the complementary state.
Depending on which state ion A is found in, the researchers now know precisely what kind of microwave pulse to apply to ion B in order to recover the exact information that had been written to ion A by the original microwave burst.
Doing so results in the accurate teleportation of the information.
Teleportation vs. other communications
What distinguishes this outcome as teleportation, rather than any other form of communication, is that no information pertaining to the original memory actually passes between ion A and ion B.
Instead, the information disappears when ion A is measured and reappears when the microwave pulse is applied to ion B.
"One particularly attractive aspect of our method is that it combines the unique advantages of both photons and atoms," says Monroe. "Photons are ideal for transferring information fast over long distances, whereas atoms offer a valuable medium for long-lived quantum memory ... Also, the teleportation of quantum information in this way could form the basis of a new type of quantum internet that could outperform any conventional type of classical network for certain tasks."
The work was supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity program under U.S. Army Research Office contract, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Physics at the Information Frontier Program, and the NSF Physics Frontier Center at the Joint Quantum Institute.
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