Spooky quantum entanglement goes big in new experiments

Two teams entangled the motions of two types of small, jiggling devices

illustration of experimental set up

DRUMMING UP ENTANGLEMENT  Two teams of scientists demonstrated quantum linkages between two specially designed jiggling structures: drumheadlike objects (illustrated) and silicon beams (not shown). 

Petja Hyttinen/Aalto University, Olli Hanhirova/ARKH Architects

Quantum entanglement has left the realm of the utterly minuscule, and crossed over to the just plain small. Two teams of researchers report that they have generated ethereal quantum linkages, or entanglement, between pairs of jiggling objects visible with a magnifying glass or even the naked eye — if you have keen vision.

Physicist Mika Sillanpää and colleagues entangled the motion of two vibrating aluminum sheets, each 15 micrometers in diameter — a few times the thickness of spider silk. And physicist Sungkun Hong and colleagues performed a similar feat with 15-micrometer-long beams made of silicon, which expand and contract in width in a section of the beam. Both teams report their results in the April 26 Nature.

“It’s a first demonstration of entanglement over these artificial mechanical systems,” says Hong, of the University of Vienna. Previously, scientists had entangled vibrations in two diamonds that were macroscopic, meaning they were visible (or nearly visible) to the naked eye. But this is the first time entanglement has been seen in macroscopic structures constructed by humans, which can be designed to meet particular technological requirements.

Entanglement is a strange feature of quantum mechanics, through which two objects’ properties become intertwined. Measuring the properties of one object immediately reveals the state of the other, even though the duo may be separated by a large distance (SN: 8/5/17, p. 14).

Quantum mechanics’ weird rules typically apply to small fry — atoms, electrons and other tiny particles — and not to larger things such as cats, chairs or buildings. But that division leads to a confounding puzzle. “Atoms behave like atoms, and cats behave like cats, and so where is that transition in between?” says physicist Ben Sussman of the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, who was not involved in the research.

Now, scientists are extending the dividing line to larger and larger objects. “One of our motivations is to keep on testing how far we can push quantum mechanics,” says Sillanpää, of Aalto University in Finland. “There might be some fundamental limit for how big objects can be” and still be quantum.

In Sillanpää’s experiment, two tiny aluminum sheets — consisting of about a trillion atoms and just barely visible with the naked eye — vibrate like drumheads and interact with microwaves bouncing back and forth in a cavity. Those microwaves play the role of drum major, causing the two drumheads to sync up their motions. In many previous demonstrations of entanglement, the delicate quantum link is transient. But this one was long-lived, persisting as long as half an hour in experiments, Sillanpää says, and, in theory, even longer. “Our entanglement lasts forever, basically.”

Taking a different tactic, Hong and colleagues demonstrated entanglement with two silicon beams, big enough to be seen with a magnifying glass. Within a region of each beam, in a 1-micrometer-long section composed of about 10 billion atoms, the structure expanded and contracted — as if taking deep breaths in and out — in response to being hit with light. Instead of microwaves, Hong and colleagues’ work used infrared light of the wavelength typically transmitted in telecommunications networks made of optical fibers, which means it could be incorporated into a future quantum internet. “From a technology standpoint, that really is crucial,” says physicist John Teufel of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., who was not involved with the work.

Scientists could use such vibrating structures within a quantum network to convert quantum information from one type to another, transitioning from particles of light to vibrations, for example. Once constructed, a quantum internet could allow quantum computers to communicate and provide unhackable communication across the globe (SN: 10/15/16, p. 13).

The ability to entangle these specially designed structures moves scientists a step closer to that vision. “You can really start to think about building real devices with these things,” Sussman says.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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