A 25-year labour of love, scientists have successfully built the so-called sapphire clock

Quantum mechanics, photonics could hold key to securing personal data

“What we’re trying to do is make an absolutely secure, private communications network,” Ben Sparkes, a research fellow on the project, said.

“Current technology relies on mathematics to encrypt information, so things like a Facebook post, your emails and your banking details, are all protected from outside nefarious evildoers — individuals, corporations or even countries — by maths.

“Unfortunately it’s not impossible to crack that encryption, and with the advent of quantum computers, it’ll be much easier to do.”

The university’s Institute of Photonics and Advanced Sensing, which has also developed what they say is the world’s most precise timing system, wants to take the principles of quantum mechanics and use it to lock down communications.

Laboratory in the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing at the University of Adelaide
The researchers are using the principles of quantum mechanics.()

“In quantum mechanics, light is not just a wave, but made of tiny individual particles called photons, which can be in many different places and states at the same time. And if you try to measure that photon or state, it will choose between one of those many different states,” Dr Sparkes said.

“If you combine all those together, then you get a technique which no-one can actually break.”

The main hurdle is that photons start to get lost after about 200 kilometres of travel, so it could take 10-20 years to perfect the technology.

“[So it’s] single particles of light to send secret messages between people, hopefully over a very long distance, to make it useful for defence, banking et cetera into the future,” Dr Sparkes said.

‘Exploiting the power of light’: Team’s other pursuits

The same team has also developed a clock so accurate it only loses a second once every 40 million years.

A 25-year labour of love, scientists at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing have successfully built and marketed the so-called sapphire clock.

A digital screen attached to a sapphire crystal clock.
The Sapphire Clock ticks 10 billion times per second to produce hyper-accurate measurements.()

Based on a lab-grown, 1,200-carat sapphire, it ticks 10 billion times per second to produce hyper-accurate measurements.

“Sapphire clock is 1,000 times more precise than any other commercial system currently available,” Associate Professor Martin O’Connor said.

“We’re partnering with the Commonwealth of Australia in using sapphire clock to improve the radar signals on Australia’s Jindalee Operational Radar Network.”

Associate Professor Martin O'Connor smiles as he holds the sapphire clock crystal.
The Sapphire Clock crystal, held by Martin O’Connor, was grown in the lab.()

Researchers say it will give the radar a boost in range, and the sensitivity to detect small, slow-moving objects.

The institute’s director, Professor Andre Luiten, said the advance in photonics and other light-bending technologies already generates billions of dollars in revenue for Australia, and employs thousands of people.

“The institute is all about exploiting the power of light, to make the world healthier, wealthier, and safer,” he said.

“You don’t just have great ideas and do research, but you need a pathway to actually push those objects out in to the market.”