January 5, 2016

Less Jitter, More Bits: New Material for Detecting Photons Captures More Quantum Information

Colorized micrograph of a NIST single-photon detector made of
superconducting nanowires patterned on molybdenum silicide.
Photo Credit: Verma/NIST

(January 5, 2015)  Detecting individual particles of light just got a bit more precise—by 74 picoseconds to be exact—thanks to advances in materials by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers and their colleagues in fabricating superconducting nanowires.

Although 74 picoseconds may not sound like much—a picosecond is a trillionth of a second—it is a big deal in the quantum world, where light particles, or photons, can carry valuable information. In this case it means that much less “jitter,” or uncertainty in the arrival time of a photon. Less jitter means that photons can be spaced more closely together but still be correctly detected. This enables communications at a higher bit rate, with more information transmitted in the same period. 

Every little bit helps when trying to receive faint signals reliably. It helped, for example, in NIST’s recent quantum teleportation record and difficult tests of physics theories. In such experiments, researchers want to decode as much information as possible from the quantum properties of billions of photons, or determine if “entangled” photons have properties that are linked before—or only after—being measured. 

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