The spin orientation of the atom contributes decisively to the stable quantum state generated by control laser and photon. Spin gives the atom a magnetic moment. The stable quantum state, which the researchers use for the storage, is thus determined by the orientation of the magnetic moment. The state is characterized by the fact that it reflects the photon’s polarization state: the direction of the magnetic moment corresponds to the rotational direction of the photon’s polarization, a mixture of both rotational directions being stored by a corresponding mixture of the magnetic moments.
This state is read out by the reverse process: irradiating the rubidium atom with the control laser again causes it to re-emit the photon which was originally incident. In the vast majority of cases, the quantum information in the read-out photon agrees with the information originally stored, as the physicists in Garching discovered. The quantity that describes this relationship, the so-called fidelity, was more than 90 percent. This is significantly higher than the 67 percent fidelity that can be achieved with classical methods, i.e. those not based on quantum effects. The method developed in Garching is therefore a real quantum memory.
The physicists measured the storage time, i.e. the time the quantum information in the rubidium can be retained, as around 180 microseconds. “This is comparable with the storage times of all previous quantum memories based on ensembles of atoms,” says Stephan Ritter, another researcher involved in the experiment. Nevertheless, a significantly longer storage time is necessary for the method to be used in a quantum computer or a quantum network. There is also a further quality characteristic of the single-atom quantum memory from Garching which could be improved: the so-called efficiency. It is a measure of how many of the irradiated photons are stored and then read out again. This was just under 10 percent.
The storage time is mainly limited by magnetic field fluctuations from the laboratory surroundings, says Ritter. “It can therefore be increased by storing the quantum information in quantum states of the atoms which are insensitive to magnetic fields.” The efficiency is limited by the fact that the atom does not sit still in the centre of the resonator, but moves. This causes the strength of the interaction between atom and photon to decrease. The researchers can thus also improve the efficiency: by greater cooling of the atom, i.e. by further reducing its kinetic energy.
The researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Garching now want to work on these two improvements. “If this is successful, the prospects for the single-atom quantum memory would be excellent,” says Stephan Ritter. The interface between light and individual atoms would make it possible to network more atoms in a quantum computer with each other than would be possible without such an interface; a fact that would make such a computer more powerful. Moreover, the exchange of photons would make it possible to quantum mechanically entangle atoms across large distances. The entanglement is a kind of quantum mechanical link between particles which is necessary to transport quantum information across large distances. The technique now being developed at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics could some day thus become an essential component of a future “quantum Internet”.