Tyndall joins EU initiative to tackle key quantum ‘bottleneck’

4 Apr 2023

Tyndall National Institute head of research, photonics packaging & systems integration Prof Peter O’Brien. Image: Jim McCarthy

Tyndall’s Prof Peter O’Brien explains his group’s work in addressing a key challenge in quantum technology and how quantum communications will make eavesdropping ‘impossible’.

Irish researchers have joined an ambitious EU initiative to make quantum technologies a reality, with a focus on advanced communications.

The Tyndall National Institute has joined the Quantum Flagship Initiative, which was launched by the EU in 2018 to expand European scientific leadership and excellence in quantum technologies.

This initiative has an overall budget of €1bn over a 10-year period, to bring various stakeholders together to turn research into commercial applications and disruptive technologies.

Tyndall is supporting a new flagship project within this initiative called the Quantum Secure Networks Partnership, which is focused on quantum communications. This project launched last month with more than 40 partners across Europe, including academia, foundries, SMEs and spin-outs.

Tyndall’s Photonics Packaging & Systems Integration Group is bringing its expertise to address key challenges in making these communications a reality.

The head of this group, Prof Peter O’Brien, told SiliconRepublic.com that quantum communications create “much tighter security” through a process called quantum key distribution, where decryption keys are shared using photonics-based Q-bits (or qubits).

“In this system, an encrypted message is sent over traditional communication networks, while the keys to decrypt the information are transmitted through quantum means,” O’Brien said. “This way, only the intended recipient can decode the message, making eavesdropping impossible.”

A number of international projects have been focused on developing the next generation of secure communications. Last July, an international team tested a form of quantum cryptography that they claimed could make the ultimate standard in secure communications.

Last December, researchers claimed they found a way for quantum entanglement to handle noise and loss over long distances, opening the door to “practical quantum networks with the ultimate form of security”.

Tackling a key quantum challenge

O’Brien said Tyndall was chosen to join the EU initiative due to its expertise in “developing and promoting advanced photonic and electronic packaging technologies”.

He said the institute’s work on the project is to develop packaging and integration that can tackle a “grand challenge”, which is the requirement to operate quantum systems at cryogenic temperatures.

As these systems are developed with “nanometre precision”, O’Brien explained that cooling them to such low temperatures leads to “mechanical shrinkage effects”, which can cause these delicate systems to misalign or stop working entirely.

“We have to invent totally new packaging materials and processes to address this challenge,” O’Brien said. “Our expertise means we are one of the few groups worldwide that can address this challenge.”

To address this challenge, O’Brien said his group is developing the photonic and electronic assembly technologies that can “link the nanometre components on semiconductor chips to the external world”. He described the chip-package interface as a “significant performance and manufacturing bottleneck”.

“Integrated photonics avoids the need for massive table-top photonic systems, shrinking them to a millimetre size chip,” O’Brien said. “The challenge is to connect or interface these chips to the external world, which involves packaging and integration.”

The future of quantum technologies

O’Brien said it can be hard to predict the long-term impact of emerging technologies such as quantum, but said he has “no doubt they will enable us to do amazing things”, which is “the beauty of disruptive technologies”.

Still, he predicted that there will be a move from fundamental physics to the production of quantum systems for applications such as communications and computing. He also sees Ireland making an impact in the development of these systems.

“Ireland is strong in fundamental quantum science,” O’Brien said.  “However, we can make a unique and major impact by developing advanced engineering solutions, addressing the many grand challenges quantum science presents. We are already showing how to do that on the global stage.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic