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Star Trek-style quantum teleportation: we are getting closer

The idea of Star Trek-style teleportation at the simple command of “Beam me up, Scotty” may well be a lifelong dream for those who have visions of an amazing future.

When the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics were announced in early October as Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger, people outside the scientific world would be forgiven for not knowing who they were. The three academics have been exploring the world of quantum mechanics, and particularly quantum entanglement – which is seen as one of the ways in which we’re likely to get to a sci-fi world of teleportation.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is – at the minute. It’s one of the things that children from an early age wish for: the ability to move from one place to another in space without any effort.

But it is theoretically possible, and practically at a subatomic scale, thanks to the work of a number of pioneering researchers.

How quantum teleportation works

The principles behind quantum teleportation aren’t that far removed from the concept illustrated in Star Trek. At its heart, quantum teleportation requires two separate but distant entangled particles to alter the state of a third particle instantly by teleporting its state to the two entangled particles.

In 2019, it was discovered that such quantum teleportation was possible: photons can pass information between computer chips even if the photons aren’t actually connected with each other in space. A year later, academics at the University of Rochester and Purdue University found that the same principle was possible between electrons.

The principle is one that has been around in physics theory for decades: Albert Einstein once called the underlying concept, quantum entanglement, a "spooky action at a distance." Quantum entanglement describes how the properties of one particle affect the properties of another, regardless of where each is based.

Decades of knowledge

Einstein called it “spooky action” because it doesn’t make sense: we know that something changing in one place affects things immediately in the proximity of what has changed, but the idea that it could have a broader, wider impact is unusual. It’s been taken on and advanced significantly by a physicist based in Northern Ireland called John Stewart Bell.

Bell demonstrated how scientists could find the hidden variables thought to make quantum entanglement work. Trying to identify them, Bell rationalized, could be done by carefully measuring several groups of entangled particles and how they react.

The experiments that Bell designed weren’t perfect, but others who followed in his footsteps sought to try and make them foolproof in order to prove without a shadow of a doubt that quantum entanglement, and therefore teleportation, was possible.

The state of teleportation today

We have seen significant new developments in quantum teleportation in recent years. Perhaps the highest profile example is the way the Micius satellite, a Chinese spacecraft, was designed to show proof of concept for quantum experiments. It managed to carry out quantum teleportation over 1,400km in 2017, demonstrating that this is indeed possible.

Space-based teleportation fittingly is easier to do than the same thing on Earth: here, we’ve only recently managed to produce a land-based quantum entanglement, breaking the record in July 2022 thanks to researchers at a Munich university. The distance over which they managed to teleport something? A more paltry 33km, with the help of a fiber-optic cable.

And with the new Nobel prize win, there’s increased focus and attention on this spookiest of concepts – fitting, given October is the month for Halloween. We are still a long way away from the dream of Star Trek, admittedly, but we’re moving out of the world of theory, where quantum teleportation is written down on paper, into practice – where it’s happening. And that’s perhaps the most exciting thing of all.

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