Physics

Quantum X-ray microscope "ghost images" molecules using entanglement

Quantum X-ray microscope "ghos...
An X-ray beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II, where the new quantum X-ray microscope will be built
An X-ray beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II, where the new quantum X-ray microscope will be built
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An X-ray beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II, where the new quantum X-ray microscope will be built
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An X-ray beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II, where the new quantum X-ray microscope will be built
A diagram showing how the quantum X-ray microscope works – the X-ray beam is split into two. The left beam passes through the sample then hits a detector as normal. The right beam doesn't touch the sample at all, but it still records information due to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement
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A diagram showing how the quantum X-ray microscope works – the X-ray beam is split into two. The left beam passes through the sample then hits a detector as normal. The right beam doesn't touch the sample at all, but it still records information due to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement

Engineers at Brookhaven National Laboratory have designed a strange new X-ray microscope that takes advantage of the spooky world of quantum physics to “ghost image” biomolecules in high resolution but at a lower radiation dose.

X-ray microscopes are useful tools for imaging samples in high resolution, but the radiation involved can damage sensitive samples such as viruses, bacteria and some cells. Reducing the radiation dose is one way around that problem, but unfortunately that also reduces the resolution of the image.

Now, the Brookhaven team has found a way to maintain higher resolution with a lower radiation dose – and all they had to do was tap into the quirks of quantum physics that boggled minds like Einstein’s.

In a standard X-ray microscope, one beam of photons is sent through a sample and collected by a detector on the other side. But in the team’s new quantum-enhanced X-ray microscope, the beam is split into two and only one half passes through the sample – and yet, both beams take measurements.

How is that possible? It’s all thanks to a strange phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. Essentially, two particles can become so entwined with each other that interacting with one will change the state of its partner instantly, no matter how much distance separates them. That implies information is moving between them faster than the speed of light, which is thought to be a hard limit – hence Einstein’s reluctance to accept the phenomenon.

In the case of the new X-ray microscope, the beam splitter produces pairs of entangled photons. One of them passes through the sample, and carries the information to the detector as usual. But at the same time, that causes its partner to automatically change its state too, even though it hasn’t come into contact with the sample. When it then hits its own detector, extra information can be gleaned from it.

A diagram showing how the quantum X-ray microscope works – the X-ray beam is split into two. The left beam passes through the sample then hits a detector as normal. The right beam doesn't touch the sample at all, but it still records information due to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement
A diagram showing how the quantum X-ray microscope works – the X-ray beam is split into two. The left beam passes through the sample then hits a detector as normal. The right beam doesn't touch the sample at all, but it still records information due to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement

“One stream goes through the sample and is collected by a detector that records the photons with good time resolution, while the other stream of photons encodes the exact direction in which the photons propagate,” says Andrei Fluerasu, a lead beamline scientist on the project. “It sounds like magic. But with mathematical calculations, we’ll be able to correlate the information from the two beams.”

This process is referred to as ghost imaging, and so far it’s only been used with photons of visible light. The new microscope would be the first to adapt the technique to X-rays, allowing images to be captured of samples smaller than 10 nanometers, without destroying them.

With the design and concept planned out, the new X-ray microscope will be constructed at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II). If all goes to plan, it should begin operations in 2023.

Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory

2 comments
2 comments
anthony88
In Star Trek, deep-space communications occur between the crew of Enterprise and Star Fleet Command without any lag due to interstellar distance or the warp speeds at which Enterprise travels. Could this quantum entanglement be used in a communication device to achieve this instantaneous communication? Could a set of photons be split on Earth, one half captured and carried in a device on a space craft, and the other half remain in a device on Earth?
Kevon Lindenberg
This is ground shaking research. The implications will be felt for lifetimes to come. In the words of Dr Károly Zsolnai-Fehér of Two Minute Papers, "What a time to be alive!"