Quantum hops

A little closer to teleportation and new computers

2012 SCIENCE NEWS TOP 25: 12

The future is calling. In a step toward hacker-proof messaging, physicists this year sent quantum-encoded information zipping over a greater distance than ever before. They also spotted a long-sought particle whose quantum properties could one day be used to develop a superfast futuristic computer.

There’s still no “beam me up” machine, but when it comes to sending information, even instant messaging can’t hold a candle to quantum teleportation. Researchers beam information using a pair of particles “entangled” such that measuring a particular property of one determines that property for the other, even if they are far apart. The information about that property is thus teleported instantaneously between the two.

One research team, based in China, entangled groups of photons 97 kilometers apart in the air above a Chinese lake. The scientists then teleported information from one group of photons to the other. A second team, based at the University of Vienna, soon broke that record by reporting teleportation across 143 kilometers, between La Palma and Tenerife in the Canary Islands (SN: 6/30/12, p. 10).

Scientists’ next step is to set up a permanent quantum teleportation experiment involving satellites or the International Space Station. Beaming information into orbit will mean sending it three times farther than ever before. Because fewer molecules exist high in the atmosphere to interfere, physicists think the feat is possible within the next few years.

Another dream is to build a quantum computer, which would rely on the quantum properties of particles to run certain types of calculations blazingly fast. One step toward this goal came this year when physicists apparently glimpsed a long-sought particle known as the Majorana fermion (SN: 5/19/12, p. 11).

First predicted in the 1930s, Majorana fermions do not have an antimatter partner like other particles do. Because of this, they might form the basis of a more stable storage unit in quantum computers, one barely influenced by the outside world.

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Alexandra Witze is a contributing correspondent for Science News. Based in Boulder, Colo., Witze specializes in earth, planetary and astronomical sciences.