Toward optical quantum computing

Ordinarily, light particles — photons — don’t interact. If two photons collide in a vacuum, they simply pass through each other.

An efficient way to make photons interact could open new prospects for both classical optics and quantum computing, an experimental technology that promises large speedups on some types of calculations.

In recent years, physicists have enabled photon-photon interactions using atoms of rare elements cooled to very low temperatures.

But in the latest issue of Physical Review Letters, MIT researchers describe a new technique for enabling photon-photon interactions at room temperature, using a silicon crystal with distinctive patterns etched into it. In physics jargon, the crystal introduces “nonlinearities” into the transmission of an optical signal.

“All of these approaches that had atoms or atom-like particles require low temperatures and work over a narrow frequency band,” says Dirk Englund, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and senior author on the new paper. “It’s been a holy grail to come up with methods to realize single-photon-level nonlinearities at room temperature under ambient conditions.”

Joining Englund on the paper are Hyeongrak Choi, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and Mikkel Heuck, who was a postdoc in Englund’s lab when the work was done and is now at the Technical University of Denmark.

Photonic independence

Quantum computers harness a strange physical property called “superposition,” in which a quantum particle can be said to inhabit two contradictory states at the same time. The spin, or magnetic orientation, of an electron, for instance, could be both up and down at the same time; the polarization of a photon could be both vertical and horizontal.

If a string of quantum bits — or qubits, the quantum analog of the bits in a classical computer — is in superposition, it can, in some sense, canvass multiple solutions to the same problem simultaneously, which is why quantum computers promise speedups.

Most experimental qubits use ions trapped in oscillating magnetic fields, superconducting circuits, or — like Englund’s own research — defects in the crystal structure of diamonds. With all these technologies, however, superpositions are difficult to maintain.

Because photons aren’t very susceptible to interactions with the environment, they’re great at maintaining superposition; but for the same reason, they’re difficult to control. And quantum computing depends on the ability to send control signals to the qubits.

That’s where the MIT researchers’ new work comes in. If a single photon enters their device, it will pass through unimpeded. But if two photons — in the right quantum states — try to enter the device, they’ll be reflected back.

The quantum state of one of the photons can thus be thought of as controlling the quantum state of the other. And quantum information theory has established that simple quantum “gates” of this type are all that is necessary to build a universal quantum computer.