Experiments with quantum communication devices and protocols are not new at CERN. In 2009, the Organization already took part in the SwissQuantum project, a public-private initiative to set up and operate over long periods of time a prototype quantum key distribution (QKD) layer.
CERN plays an important role in regional and European Internet infrastructures at the physical layer. For example, it has hosted the CERN Internet eXchange Point (CIXP) since 1996, and it has been a driving force behind the evolution of the regional internet infrastructure. The CIXP is a founding member of the European Internet Exchange Point Association (Euro-IX). Technologies core to communications systems, like time synchronisation or lasers, have been developed for CERN applications and then moved to other fields.
For the past 20 years, CERN has played a leading role in the design, deployment, and operations of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG), at the base of the revolution that has led to modern distributed computing infrastructures and Cloud computing.
Taking part in technology investigations and supporting the deployment and operations of the future Quantum Internet would not only be a natural extension of CERN's current mission but would also ensure that CERN continues to play a central role in the future of European and international communication infrastructures.
Current and future activities
The possibility of exploiting a large number of distributed resources to analyse heterogeneous data, especially for medical or biological applications, is hampered by the fact that often such data contain sensitive information or is protected by policies and usage agreements that do not allow the data to be shared. However, the recent pandemic and the many unsolved health challenges (HIV, neurological and mental conditions, overstressed healthcare systems, to mention a few) require a different approach to data collection, sharing and analysis. Traditional approaches like (pseudo-) anonymisation require compromises between privacy preservation and information content preservation.
Novel techniques to encrypt the data (such as homomorphic encryption) or move the data across provably secure connections might turn the tide. Projects like openQKD, part of the European Quantum Flagship strategy, and others are investigating the feasibility of large-scale QKD networks. CERN is currently involved in the development of an end-to-end QKD-based secure data analytics demonstrator, Quantumacy, that proposes to advance the application of cryptographic techniques, federated learning and QKD to distributed data processing.
Discussions to set up joint research in this area are now taking place with infrastructure providers, such as GEANT in Europe, and domain experts in the industry (IDQ) and research (PSNC in Poznań).
Several technologies have been developed at CERN over the years to support specific needs of the Accelerators Complex, such as time synchronisation or alignment of physical components along the LHC 27 km path. Such technologies have applications outside their original intent, in particular in quantum computing and quantum communications.
A significant example is the White Rabbit (WR) technology developed at CERN to provide sub-nanosecond accuracy and picoseconds precision of synchronisation for the LHC accelerators chain. It was first used in 2012 and since then has been showcasing its diverse industrial applications outside the field of particle physics. On 16 June, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) updated the Precision Time Protocol industry-standard (PTP), incorporating the White Rabbit PTP extension and thus maximising its adoption by industry and other partners in their pursuit to build innovative solutions to address world challenges.
This Ethernet-based technology, which ensures sub-nanosecond synchronisation and deterministic data transfer, is now deployed in numerous scientific infrastructures worldwide. It has shown its innovative potential by being commercialised and introduced into different industries, including telecommunications, financial markets, smart grids, space industry and of course, quantum computing and communication. Discussions for further joint co-development of this technology specifically for quantum communications are taking place with industrial and research technology providers.
Another example is the possible applications of structured laser beams. A structured laser beam system, developed by a team of CERN surveyors in collaboration with the Institute of Plasma Physics in Prague (IPP), is currently already deployed in communications applications, and there is interest in investigating the potential applications in quantum communications. The structured laser beam system is capable of producing beams that are virtually non-diffractive over several hundred metres, whereas systems currently available on the market produce such beams over a distance of only a few metres.