As QuMaS – a research project to demonstrate a quantum communications link between Malta and Sicily – comes to a close, DR ANDRÉ XUEREB explains how quantum mechanics and quantum cryptography are putting Malta at the forefront of data security.
“Since the 1920s, quantum mechanics has been used to tell us what happens at the very small scale of things; the infinitesimally small particles and single atoms that are the building blocks of everything in the universe,” explains Dr André Xuereb, a senior lecturer within the Department of Physics at the University of Malta and the lead researcher on the Quantum Telecommunications Link Between Malta and Sicily (QuMaS) project.
Yet, the predictions of quantum mechanics were not always given the belief that they are today. “Over the years, scientists have come to realise that the predictions made by quantum mechanics are correct,” Dr Xuereb continues. “That doesn’t make quantum mechanics any easier to understand, however…
“When talking about quantum mechanics one needs to keep in mind two things: Firstly, in quantum mechanics things can be irrevocably random. There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason that can explain the randomness in the universe. Secondly, there is the thing that Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance,’ where a pair of particles are linked through the property we call ‘entanglement’ and remain linked in this manner no matter how far apart they are.”
These two properties of quantum mechanics make this science perfect for one of the modern era’s biggest headaches: that of ensuring that data is transferred safely from Point A to Point B. Why? Because every method currently used to transfer data, including the ones used on the Internet, can be broken into… Except for quantum links. And that is exactly what this project set out to achieve.
“Over the past two years, we worked on creating a quantum link between Malta and Sicily to allow the safe transfer of highly-sensitive data,” he explains. “Working together with Melita Ltd., we wanted to show that we could send data that could not be decrypted while being transferred between the two countries, thus resolving one of the biggest problems we face today in terms of privacy.”
In a nutshell, the project aimed to show that one can use existing infrastructure to build a long-distance quantum communications link. This is an up-and-coming technology that uses the strange properties of photons (particles of light) to encrypt data. Any eavesdropper trying to listen into such communications will simply get a bunch of gibberish that no computer, present or future, can ever decode.
Impressively, QuMaS was conducted across a distance of over 100 km and under real-world conditions, without using fully equipped laboratories. This could, in many ways, revolutionise the way governments and banks, as well companies and industries, communicate between each other.
Spearheaded by the Department of Physics at the University of Malta, QuMaS also brought into the fold the Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna, Austria, and Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM) and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR). Melita Ltd., meanwhile, supplied the physical infrastructure, and Single Quantum, a Dutch start-up, provided some of the best detectors on the market to help make this project successful.
“RIDT was crucial for this project to happen as it set us up with the money we needed to start the ball rolling. Thankfully, they understand that fundamental science, which is science that is performed to bring about new knowledge rather than a specific innovation or objects, is not a luxury but a necessity. Investing in such research is also financially sustainable.
“Until now, QuMaS happened through guerrilla tactics. We were the right people at the right place and at the right time to set up this one-of-a-kind experiment. In the long run, however, Malta needs to make a concerted effort to fund this kind of research. It is true that not all the money that is invested will deliver something, but some of it will pay off handsomely. That is what makes funding science worth the expense.”
QuMaS is slowly being wrapped up; the team is still in the process of analysing a mountain of data to check whether their efforts were successful. This project has, however, already created a permanent working relationship between the University of Malta and its Italian partners, INRIM and CNR.
With more experiments expected to happen in the future, where it will take Dr Xuereb and his team is yet to be seen. What’s certain is that this project goes to show how Malta can truly be at the forefront of new scientific breakthroughs thanks to contributions from the community through RIDT.
Help us fund more projects like this, as well as research in all the faculties, by donating to RIDT. Click here for more information on how to donate.