Skip to main content
Move the World.
We’re One Step Closer to a Super-Secure Quantum Internet

Lead image © Wacomka / Adobe Stock

In January, scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Chicago announced that they'd built a 52-mile-long "quantum loop" in the suburbs of Chicago.

It's purpose: serve as a testbed for the types of experiments needed to build a functional quantum Internet. Now, the team from Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago has revealed that it has successfully entangled two photons across the loop — putting it one major step closer to that goal.

To understand why a quantum Internet is so desirable, it helps to first think about the shortcomings of the computers and Internet we currently use.

Not only would quantum Internet be faster than our current Internet, but it would also be virtually unhackable.

Today's personal computers store information in bits, each of which has a value of either zero or one at any given point in time.

Quantum computers, however, store information in quantum systems called qubits, which can have a value of zero, one, or both zero and one.

That's thanks to a strange characteristic of the quantum world known as "superposition," which allows quantum systems to exist in multiple states simultaneously — they only snap into one state when we observe or measure them.

The ability to be in multiple states at once allows qubits to store and process more information than bits — for every qubit you add to a quantum computer, you double its processing power. That means a quantum computer with enough qubits could solve computing problems that are currently impossible for classical computers to process quickly enough to be useful.

In addition to helping us process information, superposition can also help us securely transmit it, which is where the idea of a quantum Internet and the "quantum loop" in Chicago comes into play.

To understand that, though, we first need to dig into another facet of the quantum world: entanglement, something so bizarre that Albert Einstein famously described it as "spooky action at a distance."

Quantum systems have the ability to become entangled, meaning that they will share a strange bond even if they're far apart from one another.

Scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago entangled photons (light particles) across the quantum loop, a 52-mile fiber optic network in the Chicago suburbs. The animation shows entanglement created and distributed through pair of 26-mile loops from Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL to the I-355 Boughton Road Toll Plaza in Bolingbrook, IL, and back again. Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago entangled photons (light particles) across the quantum loop, a 52-mile fiber optic network in the Chicago suburbs. The animation shows entanglement created and distributed through pair of 26-mile loops from Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL to the I-355 Boughton Road Toll Plaza in Bolingbrook, IL, and back again. Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

A common analogy for this involves two particles that have been entangled so that if one is red, the other has to be green. In their quantum states, each particle is actually red and green — thanks, superposition — and it's only when someone observes one particle that it becomes either red or green.

Here's the weird part: even if you separate the two particles by a great distance, the instant you observe one particle — and find that it's, say, green — the other particle stops being in a state of superposition and snaps into its red state.

It's like they're somehow communicating with one another at a speed faster than light — hence "spooky action at a distance."

It's easy to see how entanglement could be useful for a new kind of Internet. We can entangle qubits, separate them, and then use their strange connection to transmit information.

Not only would this quantum Internet be faster than our current Internet, but it would also be virtually unhackable — the people on either side of a transmission would instantly know if anyone tried to intercept the information since the mere act of observation would affect it, snapping it out of superposition and into a single state.

Researchers have already figured out ways to create entangled particles and send them across incredible distances — in 2017, a team of scientists in China successfully sent a pair of entangled photons from a satellite in space to two bases on Earth separated by a distance of 745 miles.

Quantum system entanglement is so bizarre that Albert Einstein famously described it as “spooky action at a distance.”

That might make the Chicago team's entanglement across its 52-mile-long quantum loop, which consists of two connected 26-mile-long fiber-optic cables, seem trivial by comparison.

But entangling particles through space is far easier than on Earth. Here, scientists have to account for all the interference produced within our planet's atmosphere, which can affect the entanglement.

"In the real world, the fiber cables are expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. There is also vibration and noise from the environment such as local traffics," Tian Zhong, Argonne scientist in the Nanoscience and Technology Division and assistant professor of Molecular Engineering at UChicago, explained in a press release. "These are all factors that can affect the quantum signal transmission, and that we can only find out by performing an experiment of this magnitude under real-world operating conditions."

The Chicago loop is one of the longest ground-based channels for quantum communication in the entire United States. That makes successfully entangling photons across it a huge milestone for the nation's quantum researchers — and a huge step forward along the path toward an entirely new kind of Internet.

Up Next

Future of Medicine
Does Playing Sports Quiet the Brain?
Does Playing Sports Quiet the Brain?
Future of Medicine
Does Playing Sports Quiet the Brain?
Athletes across many sports have something in common - they can more easily “quiet” their brain to focus on what’s really going on.
By Caroline Delbert

Athletes across many sports have something in common - they can more easily “quiet” their brain to focus on what’s really going on.

Opinion
A Molecular Biologist Discusses the Morality of Genetic Engineering
A Molecular Biologist Discusses the Morality of Gene Editing
Opinion
A Molecular Biologist Discusses the Morality of Genetic Engineering
Molecular biologist Daisy Robinton speaks out on our moral imperative to solve some of humanity's greatest health threats.
By Daisy Robinton, Ph.D.

Molecular biologist Daisy Robinton speaks out on our moral imperative to solve some of humanity's greatest health threats.

Interstellar
How to Talk to Aliens
How to Talk to Aliens
Interstellar
How to Talk to Aliens
Let's imagine aliens exist. You have the extraordinary task of crafting a message that they might conceivably understand. How would you do it? And what would you say? Daniel Oberhaus has a few ideas.
By Tien Nguyen

Let's imagine aliens exist. You have the extraordinary task of crafting a message that they might conceivably understand. How would you do it? And what would you say? Daniel Oberhaus has a few ideas.

Global Impact
Uganda Begins Massive New Ebola Vaccine Study
Uganda Begins Massive New Ebola Vaccine Study
Global Impact
Uganda Begins Massive New Ebola Vaccine Study
The Ebola outbreak in the Congo is now the second deadliest on record. How can we stop the devastation? A study in Uganda could hold the key for a new vaccine.

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now the second deadliest on record. The epicenter is in North Kivu, a conflict-torn province which shares borders with Rwanda and Uganda. Ugandan Ebola cases were the first to cross borders from the current Congo outbreak. Now, a new trial study in Uganda could hold the key to stopping the spread of this devastating disease.

INTEL
Bringing Virtual Reality to Brain Surgery
Bringing Virtual Reality to Brain Surgery
Watch Now
INTEL
Bringing Virtual Reality to Brain Surgery
Virtual reality is helping surgeons and patients prepare for complicated, life-saving surgeries in ways never before possible.
Watch Now

Brain surgery is never easy -- for the doctor or the patient. Now, virtual reality is changing the game. Surgical Theater has created a revolutionary new tool, powered by Intel technology, that allows surgeons and patients to prepare for complicated new surgeries in ways never before possible. Surgeons have previously had to rely on 2D images and their imagination to visualize a surgery, but now they are able to use 3D, VR...

Intel
The Future of Cancer Research
The Future of Cancer Research
Watch Now
Intel
The Future of Cancer Research
Intel's Bryce Olson used genomic sequencing to help fight his cancer. Now he’s helping researchers use artificial intelligence to discover entirely new cancer treatments.
Watch Now

Intel employee Bryce Olson was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. When the standard of care didn’t work, Bryce turned to genomic sequencing which allowed his doctors to identify specific genetic drivers of his disease and specific treatments and clinical trials that were a fit for his cancer. This precision medicine approach helped send his cancer into remission for several years. Now that his cancer has returned,...

Dispatches
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
Dispatches
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
A new pill can make cancer cells glow under infrared light, and it could eliminate for mammograms.

A new pill can make cancer cells glow under infrared light, and it could eliminate for mammograms.

Superhuman
The World's Most Advanced Bionic Arm
The World's Most Advanced Bionic Arm
Superhuman
The World's Most Advanced Bionic Arm
A fascinating interview with Michael P. McLoughlin, the chief engineer of research and exploratory development at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
By Mike Riggs

A fascinating interview with Michael P. McLoughlin about bionic arms for amputees and the world of advanced prosthetics. McLoughlin is the chief engineer of research and exploratory development at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.