QuintessenceLabs harnesses diode 'flaw' for new quantum number generator

​Hijacking a flaw in diodes to harness quantum physics, Australia's QuintessenceLabs has built a full-entropy quantum random number generator with a 1Gbps output.

Quantum cybersecurity firm QuintessenceLabs (QLabs) has announced developing a full-entropy quantum random number generator (QRNG), by leveraging a "flaw" in diodes.

QLabs said the flaw, a quantum property in diodes known as quantum tunnelling, is a phenomenon in which a particle travels across a barrier that -- according to classical mechanics -- it should not be able to cross.

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"As a result, quantum tunnelling results in random fluctuations in the current flowing through the tunnel diode, since there is no way to determine beforehand how many charge carriers would 'tunnel' through at any instant time," the company explained.

For the latest release of its quantum random number generator qStream, QLabs has developed a way to measure and digitally process these fluctuations to generate "full-entropy" random numbers at a rate of 1Gbps.

"It is surprisingly hard to generate true random numbers at speeds fast enough for commercial use, which is why most applications have relied on deterministic or pseudo-random numbers," QLabs founder and CEO Vikram Sharma said.

"Unfortunately, you only find out just how fragile pseudo numbers are when it's too late and a breach occurs; cryptographers understand the need to take that issue out of the equation."

QLabs launched its "first generation" of the qStream device in 2015, using lasers as the source of its quantum random number generation before switching to quantum tunnelling.

Speaking with ZDNet previously, Sharma explained that quantum key distribution uses quantum properties to exchange secret information -- such as cryptographic keys -- in a way that's invulnerable to cyber threats. The security of quantum key distribution is based on a fundamental characteristic of quantum mechanics: The act of measuring a quantum system disturbs the system.

The company said tunnel diodes can generate full entropy random numbers at the same rate as the first generation, but without the need of laser and photo-detector, which results in what QLabs explained as a "more compact and cost-effective" product, cutting the size of the QRNG hardware to a quarter, while delivering the same quality and speed.

"Our initial concept worked flawlessly, but we are always looking for better ways to get the same or improved results," Sharma explained, noting that his company has been exploring other methods, besides lasers, for a few years.

"Tunnel diodes looked promising, but we had to find a way to accurately measure and digitise the information in a way we could use for our purposes. The team has been pushing the boundaries on this for over a year to refine the technology for commercial use."

QLabs picked up AU$3.26 million in funding from the Australian Department of Defence in July to continue the expansion of its quantum key distribution capabilities and develop an Australia-specific solution. This was followed in January by an additional AU$528,000 to progress encryption work for the department.

Australian banking heavyweight Westpac has also funded QLabs' work, boasting a 16 percent stake in the company as a result.

QLabs was formed in 2008 as a spin-off out of the physics department at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, although QLabs' product suite was developed independent of ANU.

At the time, the company was looking at commercialising some technology, research, and experimental work that came out of the physics department in the field of quantum cryptography or quantum key distribution.

In addition to its ties with ANU, QLabs has a linkage grant with the University of Newcastle and a partnership with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and its Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T).

The CQC2T currently houses a team of university researchers that is racing to build the world's first quantum computer in silicon.

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