June 24, 2020

Quantum memories could be the key to a more secure internet of the future

Lindsay LeBlanc in her laboratory at the University of Alberta // Photo supplied by University of Alberta

Story by Breanna Mrozcek

The internet needs an upgrade. For the past three decades, the massive digital network that connects billions of computers and other devices has been getting increasingly sophisticated and complex. The Internet of Things now links the internet to almost anything you can imagine, including pet monitors, cars lightbulbs, and insulin pens. But as the web has become more connected to every part of our lives, we need it to become smarter, faster and – most essentially – more secure.

But upgrading the “world wide web” isn’t a simple as a software update. Researchers around the world have been working to shape the future of computing and digital communications, and one of the most promising avenues is quantum technology. In Alberta, Alberta Innovates has invested more than $10 million in Alberta quantum technologies research since 2003, including support for Quantum Alberta, a pan-Alberta network of researchers and industry who contribute to the Quantum Canada strategy. The goal is to attract and train key talent that will allow Alberta to leave its own mark on the emerging quantum landscape. 

Heading into the second decade of quantum research in Alberta is a new generation of researchers who are considering practical applications for the secure transfer of sensitive data. Among them is Dr. Lindsay LeBlanc, an atomic physicist focused on quantum communications research at the University of Alberta. Alberta Innovates has been supporting LeBlanc’s research since 2014, when she was named the Alberta Innovates Chair in Hybrid Quantum Systems.

Quantum is a framework used to understand matter and light as waves, not just discrete particles. Current computer systems work with 1s and 0s in a binary system, but a quantum system would not be in a definite particle state it and could read 1s and 0s together to decipher and transfer more complex information. The hope is that the complexity of a quantum-based internet would dramatically increase security.

“A quantum Internet will be a very secure internet,” LeBlanc says. “It will be a specialized branch of the Internet where you’re sending sensitive data like banking, government, or internal information. There’s even talk about things like quantum money, which would be similar to cryptocurrency, which is already very secure. Ultimately, a quantum internet just offers the security that other networks can’t.”

But it is a complex space and there are still many gaps in the research, including the development of devices and technologies needed for a quantum computing world that could be accessed by industry and consumers. LeBlanc’s work is largely focused on quantum memories, which have a similar function to computer hard drives and are vital to creating a quantum network.

With a three-year grant from Alberta Innovates, LeBlanc and her team of graduate and undergraduate students are conducting research and experiments to develop practical quantum devices that could be commercialized and facilitate spin-off companies, or that could be patented and adopted by existing companies. LeBlanc and her students are working on making portable quantum devices that could be plugged into existing computers. Early iterations—a soup-can size cavity made of copper developed by an undergraduate student—have demonstrated promising results. Other students are working on finessing the designs and materials with an eye to ultimately making these products practical and easy to sell for use by industries and, eventually, consumers.

But while that work is important, there’s more to it than just creating new tech. “We’re training the next generation of researchers and qualified personnel that will be able to use their high-tech skills and knowledge to help existing business adopt quantum technologies, or result in whole new industries,” she says. “In my lab both people and technologies are being developed.”

LeBlanc credits her students with much of the industry-changing and competitive research coming out of her lab, which points to her talent as a teacher and mentor.

“I give students who work in my lab opportunities to network with various industries, various academic institutions and conferences,” LeBlanc says. “I provide them with professional development opportunities so they can speak the language of industry and government. We’re trying to give them practice with presenting and other soft skills so they can take these ideas out into the world.”

That’s integral to leveraging the world-class capacities of Alberta’s post secondaries, creating Made-in-Alberta solutions to enable a global, interconnected future.