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by Sofia Villegas
19 January 2024
Heriot-Watt behind ‘critical’ step for future technologies

From left to right – Beyond Binary Quantum Information Lab (BBQLab) members Dr Saroch Leedumrongwatthanakun, Professor Mehul Malik and PhD student Suraj Goel | Heriot-Watt University

Heriot-Watt behind ‘critical’ step for future technologies

Scientists at a Scottish university have made a breakthrough discovery in optical circuit programming (OPC), pivotal for advances in technology. 

Optical fibres use light to carry data, and researchers have found harnessing this light could enhance the precision of OPCs inside these fibres. 

The Heriot-Watt University discovery could be critical for future technologies such as unhackable communications networks and ultrafast quantum computers. 

Professor Mehul Malik, an experimental physicist at Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, said: “As optical circuits get bigger and more complex, they’re harder to control and make – and this can affect their performance. Our research shows an alternative – and more versatile – way of engineering optical circuits, using a process that occurs naturally in nature. 

“By learning this complex process and precisely shaping the light that enters the optical fibre, we’ve found a way to carefully engineer a circuit for light inside this disorder.” 

Optical circuits are also critical to the development of future quantum technology, which is at the forefront of advances in areas including drug development, climate prediction and space exploration. 

The circuits are required “at the end of quantum communications networks so the information can be measured after it’s travelled long distances,” Malik explained.  

“They are also a key part of a quantum computer, where they are used for performing complex calculations with particles of light.” 

Research revealed that this new programme could help manipulate quantum entanglement, which happens when two or more quantum particles remain connected even when separated. This phenomenon allows for amendments to errors inside quantum computers and enables the most secure types of quantum encryption, among other things. 

The team used commercial optical fibres, often used to transport the internet, to do the testing.  

Heriot-Watt has multiple international partners for the research including Lund University in Sweden, Sapienza University of Rome in Italy and the University of Twente in The Netherlands. 

The European Research Council, the Austrian Research Promotion Agency and QuantERA, a leading European network of public research organisations, funded the study. 

This breakthrough adds to the university's world-renowned research, with more than 85 per cent of it classed as 'internationally excellent' in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework.  

The findings have now been published in the scientific journal Nature Physics

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