Photon polorization process

2007 HowStuffWorks

Photon Properties

Photons are some pretty amazing particles. They have no mass, they're the smallest measure of light, and they can exist in all of their possible states at once, called the wave function. This means that whatever direction a photon can spin in -- say, diagonally, vertically and horizontally -- it does all at once. Light in this state is called unpolarized. This is exactly the same as if you constantly moved east, west, north, south, and up-and-down at the same time. Mind-boggling? You bet. But don't let this throw you off; even quantum physicists are grappling with the implications of the wave function.

The foundation of quantum physics is the unpredictability factor. This unpredictability is pretty much defined by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. This principle says, essentially, that it's impossible to know both an object's position and velocity -- at the same time.

But when dealing with photons for encryption, Heisenberg's principle can be used to our advantage. To create a photon, quantum cryptographers use LEDs -- light emitting diodes, a source of unpolarized light. LEDs are capable of creating just one photon at a time, which is how a string of photons can be created, rather than a wild burst. Through the use of polarization filters, we can force the photon to take one state or another -- or polarize it. If we use a vertical polarizing filter situated beyond a LED, we can polarize the photons that emerge: The photons that aren't absorbed will emerge on the other side with a vertical spin ( | ).

The thing about photons is that once they're polarized, they can't be accurately measured again, except by a filter like the one that initially produced their current spin. So if a photon with a vertical spin is measured through a diagonal filter, either the photon won't pass through the filter or the filter will affect the photon's behavior, causing it to take a diagonal spin. In this sense, the information on the photon's original polarization is lost, and so, too, is any information attached to the photon's spin.

So how do you attach information to a photon's spin? That's the essence of quantum cryptography. Read the next page to find out how quantum cryptography works.