Scientists in the UK have demonstrated a prototype quantum network for secure online communications that can't be penetrated by cyber attacks.
The University of Bristol's 'multiplexing' system splits light particles that carry information to multiple internet users from a single central source.
Researchers have demonstrated the technology – which employs the odd effects of quantum entanglement – on optical fibres in different locations across Bristol.
If rolled out, the system could make the contents of online messages completely safe from interception while saving several billions of pounds spent on current quantum communications systems.
Quantum tech employs the freaky effects of quantum physics – the nature of matter at the atomic and subatomic levels – for advances in communications.
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A close-up of the equipment to maintain quantum entanglement - when two particles become inextricably linked. The quantum physics experiment has demonstrated an important step towards quantum cryptography between many users, an essential requirement for a secure quantum internet
The researchers say their unique prototype is understood to be the largest-ever quantum network of its kind and could transform how people communicate online.
'This represents a massive breakthrough and makes the quantum internet a much more realistic proposition,' said study author Dr Siddarth Joshi at the University of Bristol's Quantum Engineering Technology (QET) Labs.
'Until now, building a quantum network has entailed huge cost, time, and resource, as well as often compromising on its security which defeats the whole purpose.
'Our solution is scalable, relatively cheap and, most important of all, impregnable.
'That means it's an exciting game changer and paves the way for much more rapid development and widespread rollout of this technology.'
Project leader Dr Joshi optimising the central quantum network hub. The 'multiplexing' system splits light particles that carry information to multiple internet users from a single central source
Generally, the internet relies on complex codes to protect information, but hackers are increasingly adept at outsmarting such systems.
These cyber attacks result in embarrassing privacy breaches for global firms, costing trillions of pounds annually in total and compromising customer data.
With such figures projected to rise, quantum has been hailed for decades as the revolutionary replacement for standard encryption techniques.
So far physicists have developed a form of secure encryption, known as quantum key distribution, in which particles of light, called photons, are transmitted to carry information.
Artist’s impression of the quantum network, which provides every user with mathematically perfect secure encryption keys
The process allows two parties to share, without the risk of interception, a secret key used to encrypt and decrypt the information.
But to date this technique has only been effective between two users, rather than a network of multiple users.
For a party of eight users to each send information to each other, for example, each one has to be establishing one-on-one connections with every other user.
One way of avoiding this is to add a third party to each transmission, but having this 'person in the middle' can be a security risk.
Sebastian Neumann at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, one of the experts involved in the project, explains the issue on a blackboard.
Under the former method, for each of the eight users to be able to communicate without a 'person in the middle', there would need to be 56 individual connections and receiver boxes.
Receiver boxes are devices that receive and measure quantum signals.
'Think of it as some device that connects to your laptop on one end and to the optical fibre on the other,’ Dr Joshi told MailOnline.
‘Eventually we will make these devices small enough to be just another chip inside your computer or phone.’
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