Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Switching with single photons

MPQ-scientists demonstrate switching effects caused by single photons

The idea to perform data processing with light, without relying on any electronic components, has been around for quite some time. In fact, necessary components such as optical transistors are available.

Fig. 1: Illustration of the experimental set-up: an atomic cloud (green) is held in an optical dipole trap and irradiated with light pulses from a control (blue) and a signal beam (red). Graphic: MPQ, Quantum Dynamics Division.

However, up to now they have not gained a lot of attention from computer companies. This could change in the near future as packing densities of electronic devices as well as clock frequencies of electronic computers are about to reach their limits. Optical techniques promise a high bandwidth and low dissipation power, in particular, if only faint light pulses are needed to achieve the effect of switching.

The ultimate limit is a gate-pulse that contains one photon only. A team of scientists around Professor Gerhard Rempe, director of the Quantum Dynamics Division at the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics, has now managed to bring this almost utopian task into reality (PRL, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett. 112.073901, 18 February 2014). The scientists succeeded in switching a medium – a cloud of about 200 000 ultracold atoms – from being transparent to being opaque for light pulses. This “single-photon-switch” could be the first step in the development of a quantum logic gate, an essential component in the field of quantum information processing.

The experiment starts with cooling a cloud of about 200 000 rubidium atoms down to a temperature of 0.43 micro-Kelvin (this is just above absolute zero, which corresponds to minus 273 degree Celsius). The atoms are held in an optical dipole trap created by the crosswise superposition of two laser beams. The cloud is irradiated by two light pulses separated by 0.15 micro-seconds. The pulses are extremely weak, they contain on average one or even less photons. The first pulse – the so-called gate-pulse – gets absorbed inside the cloud. To be precise, it is stored as an atomic excitation, as it brings one of the atoms into a highly excited Rydberg state. The mere presence of the Rydberg atom leads to a shift of the corresponding energy levels of the other atoms in the cloud. Hence, the wavelength of the second pulse – the target pulse –no longer meets the requirements for excitation and gets blocked. In other words, the cloud of atoms acts as a medium which, on capturing one single photon, switches from being transparent to opaque. The storage of the photon can be maintained as long as the Rydberg state survives, i.e. for about 60 micro-seconds.

The whole procedure is based on a sophisticated combination of a number of experimental measures. For example, the transparency of the cloud is achieved by the application of a control laser. “In order to trap the gate-photon we use the so-called slow-light technique,” Dr Stephan Dürr, leader of the experiment, explains. “When the photon is traversing the cloud it polarizes the surrounding medium and is slowed down to a velocity of 1000 km/h. As a consequence, the pulse length shrinks to a couple of tens of micrometres, such that it is completely contained inside the cloud during a certain time window. If the control laser is switch off exactly in this time period, the pulse comes to a halt and is completely converted into an atomic excitation.”

The second pulse is prepared with a polarization that cannot couple to the atomic excitation that has been stored before. This prevents the target pulse from reading out the stored photon. “Subsequently, we switch the control laser back on. A photon with the right polarization can retrieve the gate-photon from the cloud. We repeat this cycle every 100 micro-seconds”, says Simon Baur, who works at the experiment as a doctoral candidate.

In a series of measurements the scientists were able to prove that the number of transmitted target photons was reduced by a factor of 20 if a gate-photon had been stored in the cloud before. “Our experiment opens new perspectives in the field of quantum information”, Professor Rempe resumes. “A single-photon switch could herald the successful storage of quantum information. That way, storage times could be improved. Last but not least, the new device could be the first step in the development of a quantum logic gate, a key element in quantum information processing.” Olivia Meyer-Streng

Original publication:

Simon Baur, Daniel Tiarks, Gerhard Rempe and Stephan Dürr
Single-Photon Switch Based on Rydberg Blockade
Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett. 112.073901, 18 February 2014
Prof. Dr. Gerhard Rempe
Director at Max-Planck-Institute of
Quantum Optics
Hans-Kopfermann-Straße 1
85748 Garching, Germany
Phone: +49 (0)89 / 32 905 -701 /Fax: -311
Dr. Stephan Dürr
Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics
Hans-Kopfermann-Straße 1
85748 Garching, Germany
Phone: +49 (0)89 / 32 905 -291 /Fax: -311
Dipl. Phys. Simon Baur
Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics
Hans-Kopfermann-Straße 1
85748 Garching, Germany
Phone: +49 (0)89 / 32 905 -245 /Fax: -311
Dr. Olivia Meyer-Streng
Press & Public Relations
Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics
85748 Garching, Germany
Phone: +49 (0)89 / 32 905 -213

Dr. Olivia Meyer-Streng | Max-Planck-Institut
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Four elements make 2-D optical platform
26.09.2017 | Rice University

nachricht The material that obscures supermassive black holes
26.09.2017 | Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC)

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The fastest light-driven current source

Controlling electronic current is essential to modern electronics, as data and signals are transferred by streams of electrons which are controlled at high speed. Demands on transmission speeds are also increasing as technology develops. Scientists from the Chair of Laser Physics and the Chair of Applied Physics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have succeeded in switching on a current with a desired direction in graphene using a single laser pulse within a femtosecond ¬¬ – a femtosecond corresponds to the millionth part of a billionth of a second. This is more than a thousand times faster compared to the most efficient transistors today.

Graphene is up to the job

Im Focus: LaserTAB: More efficient and precise contacts thanks to human-robot collaboration

At the productronica trade fair in Munich this November, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be presenting Laser-Based Tape-Automated Bonding, LaserTAB for short. The experts from Aachen will be demonstrating how new battery cells and power electronics can be micro-welded more efficiently and precisely than ever before thanks to new optics and robot support.

Fraunhofer ILT from Aachen relies on a clever combination of robotics and a laser scanner with new optics as well as process monitoring, which it has developed...

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Nerves control the body’s bacterial community

26.09.2017 | Life Sciences

Four elements make 2-D optical platform

26.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Goodbye, login. Hello, heart scan

26.09.2017 | Information Technology

More VideoLinks >>>