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The National Institute of Standards and Technology has tested a new method of splitting photon beams that could overcome a fundamental physical hurdle in transmitting electronic data, the agency said.

The results could lead to commercial systems that can help safeguard the transfer of sensitive information.

The findings say a prototype device developed with collaborators at Stanford University can double the amount of quantum information that can be sent readily through fiber-optic cables, whose current pulse streams can be intercepted by third parties undetectably.

The heart of the newly developed device is a new crystal that goes beyond converting the wavelength of the photons.

Designed and fabricated by Stanford’s Jason Pelc, the crystal is capable of splitting the beam of infrared, information-carrying photons into two distinct beams of slightly different color, and directing the different-colored photons to different outputs. Controlling the flow to either output allows the team to use two “slow” detectors in place of one, thereby doubling the overall system speed.

“The limiting factor up until this point has been the detector speed,” says Paulina Kuo, a scientist with NIST’s Applied and Computational Mathematics Division. “Researchers would like a way around this issue, as it stands in the way of quantum information-based security innovations.”