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Quantum technology based on Nobel Prize-worthy knowledge


In his fundamental research, which has now been awarded the world's highest science prize, physics Nobel laureate Anton Zeilinger laid the foundation for the development of quantum communication technologies at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology. The goal is to make this extremely secure technology suitable for everyday use and to establish a quantum communication network throughout Europe. 

Every transmission of data offers a gateway for cyber criminals: eavesdropping and hacker attacks are now commonplace and cause gigantic damage. One of the most important measures to ensure security is the encryption of data. The dominant encryption method today, so-called "symmetric" encryption, is indeed de facto indecipherable (at least as long as the keys are sufficiently complex). However, there is a catch: in order to be able to use this method when transmitting data, the key itself must be transmitted in an absolutely secure way. Traditionally, this has been done by handing over the key in person or by letter. However, this is hardly feasible for worldwide communication. 

Safety through natural laws

Quantum physics comes to the rescue: There is a phenomenon called "entanglement of particles": Two entangled particles have exactly the same properties, even if they are very far apart. If you change the properties of one of the two particles, this has an immediate effect on the other particle. This means, on the one hand, that confidential information can be exchanged in this way, and on the other hand, that one immediately notices if someone is listening in on this communication (because reading out information also changes the state of the particles). 

Albert Einstein once dismissed this phenomenon as "spooky action at a distance". But in 1997, the Viennese quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger (University of Vienna, Austrian Academy of Sciences) was able to demonstrate that this principle can indeed be used in the form of so-called "teleportation" - the transport of the state of a light particle. In 1999, he succeeded in proving that the phenomenon also works for the transmission of confidential information. For this work on quantum-physical entanglement, Zeilinger has now been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics - together with his colleagues John Clauser and Alain Aspect. 

A real proof of practical applicability was provided in 2004 - namely by transmitting a symmetric key by means of entangled photons (light particles) over a 600-meter fiber optic line between a Viennese bank and the city hall. Since then, this has also been achieved in fiber-optic networks hundreds of kilometers long, between two Canary Islands, and most recently via a satellite between Beijing and Vienna. In technical jargon, this is called quantum key distribution (QKD). 

Technical application of scientific knowledge

Researchers at AIT have been involved in these experiments from the very beginning: They develop the technical equipment for quantum cryptography and organize large research networks, such as the EU project SEQOQC, which involved 41 partners from twelve countries. Over the past decade, AIT has gained an international reputation as a specialist in both terrestrial and satellite-based quantum cryptography and as a coordinator of major European projects.

Currently, the work is particularly focused on miniaturizing the devices needed for quantum communications. "We are building prototypes that have the same functionality as large laboratory setups but are integrated on an optical chip," explains AIT researcher Hannes Hübel. The goal is to create small and compact terminals that can be easily used by anyone with a fiber-optic connection - similar to the way people today keep a modem by their computer for Internet access.

Quantum Flagship: Towards a Quantum Industry

For the technology to actually gain a foothold in practice, three factors play a key role: the robustness, size and price of the devices. "We try to reduce the technological complexity as much as possible, use standard components and make the whole thing robust, i.e. stable over the long term," says Hübel. This also requires developing lots of electronics and control software. This work is taking place, among other things, as part of the major European Quantum Flagship program, which was launched in 2018 with a time frame of ten years and a funding volume of one billion euros. 

Of four flagship projects in the field of quantum communication, AIT is leading one project and is a partner in another. The Viennese researchers are leading the UNIQORN project (Affordable Quantum Communication for Everyone: Revolutionizing the Quantum Ecosystem from Fabrication to Application). Together with 17 partners from Europe, photonic technologies are being used to advance the miniaturization of quantum applications in the direction of system-on-chip solutions. The "CiViQ" (Continuous Variable Quantum Communications) project focuses on the cost-effective integration of quantum communications into emerging optical telecommunications networks. 21 partners, including leading telecoms, integrators and developers of QKD, are working on flexible and cost-effective systems for quantum key distribution. AIT is developing QKD prototypes and specialized software for field deployment in this project.

Photonic circuits

Highly integrated photonic circuits for quantum communications. Image Credit: www.einstellungssache.at

Testbeds and secure networks

Another thrust to make quantum communication suitable for everyday use is the establishment of networks and testbeds in Europe. Already in September 2019, the EU launched the Horizon 2020 project "OPENQKD" (Open European Quantum Key Distribution Testbed), which is scheduled for three years and funded with 15 million euros. The consortium, led by AIT, comprises 38 partners from 13 countries and brings together manufacturers, network operators, system integrators, SMEs, research institutions, universities, certification and standardization bodies, and end users. With the goal of establishing a secure network for quantum communications in Europe and thus launching a European ecosystem for quantum technology providers and application developers, the consortium is pushing ahead with the development of various demonstrators (some of them in Austria) and future applications. This includes e.g. storage in cloud infrastructures, protection of sensitive medical information (testbed in Graz) or government communication data (testbed in Vienna).

Receiving device of encrypted data

Receiving device for data encrypted with quantum technology. Image Credit: www.einstellungssache.at

A European Cyber Shield

"OPENQKD" is also the first pilot project within the framework of the "EuroQCI" initiative (European Quantum Communication Infrastructure Initiative), in which a European cyber shield based on a quantum communication infrastructure is to be established over the next 10 years. The corresponding "EuroQCI Declaration" has already been signed by 24 EU member states. Since February 2020, the "QCI4EU" study with AIT as project partner has been underway to specify the user requirements and use cases that will drive the development of EuroQCI. Based on this, an overarching system architecture for EuroQCI will be elaborated. This will be composed of terrestrial and space-based solutions that are "secure by design" and cover the entire European Union.

Quantum encryption via satellites

Quantum technologies have long since arrived in space as well. Since 2018, the project "QUARTZ" (Quantum Cryptography Telecommunication System) has been running, supported by the European Space Agency ESA and involving 8 other renowned research institutions, universities and companies in addition to AIT and the project coordinator SES (the world's leading satellite operator). A satellite-based cybersecurity system based on quantum encryption is being developed. The unlimited coverage provided by satellites will make it possible to overcome the current limitations of fiber-based QKD systems - with transmission ranges of just a few hundred kilometers - and make a globally available cybersecurity system available even to networks in remote regions.

Best possible data protection

Vienna, 17.04.2020

Data protection and privacy are essential for a modern society. They form the fundamental basis of trust for cultural, social and economic development. The associated creation of "security" is thus a key core task at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology. Against the backdrop of a wide range of constantly changing threats to our society, it is important to develop innovative approaches to countering these threats. A particular focus of research activities at the AIT is on methods, architectures and technologies to ensure the highest possible level of data protection in any technical solution through privacy by design approaches. Data protection and privacy are sensitive and worthy of protection, which is taken into account as a top priority in all research activities conducted at AIT.


Mag. (FH) Michael W. Mürling

Marketing and Communications

AIT Austrian Institute of Technology 

Center for Digital Safety & Security

T +43 (0)50550-4126

michael.muerling(at)ait.ac.at I www.ait.ac.at 

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