Have you ever looked at your smartphone or computer and wondered what’s inside and how it works? Those digital devices are encoded in the binary system, millions of little light switches that flick from 0 to 1. This binary information is typically encrypted when sensitive communications are involved (such as when you plug-in your credit card information online).  The 31-year-old professor calls this “classical physics.”

Dr. Steven Olmschenk earned a $137,763 grant from the Army Research Office in August to pursue experiments in quantum information, a field that has the potential to break the current encryptions in technology.

“An encryption is a hard problem to solve for a computer,” Professor Olmschenk said. He says that there are millions of possible answers to solving an encryption, and that the average desktop computer “would take several decades.”

Instead of classical physics approach of coding in zeroes and ones, Olmschenk plans on using quantum mechanics. He’s going to take atoms and code them as 0+1, 0-1, etc.; this “fuzziness,” as Olmschenk calls it, means that the atoms can try different solutions to the encryption at once, rather than one at a time.

Then what’s the problem?

It would take 100 of these atoms – or more – to break the encryption. And as of now, the world record is 14 fully controlled, fully functional atoms, according to Olmschenk. He says that “quantum information is fragile, and when there are more atoms, there are uncontrolled interactions.”

So what makes Olmschenk’s research different from his predecessors?

He is going to use infrared light, a cheaper, more efficient alternative to ultraviolet light, to excite an atom, which then decays to give a photon (an individual particle of light). The atom can be excited and re-excited to birth more photons. The photons can be used to link together distant atoms, providing the numbers needed for larger information processing, while avoiding many of the uncontrolled interactions that can destroy the fragile quantum information.

Olmschenk has outlined several goals for those developing this research. The first goal, especially for government departments, is the ability to break codes. The second goal is to simulate other quantum systems. And lastly, this research “teaches us more about quantum physics, and what we can now test in the lab.”

Steve Olmschenk is from Shafer, Minn. He went to University of Chicago for undergraduate studies and received an M.A. in physics and an M.S.E. in electrical engineering from University of Michigan before receiving his doctorate in physics from Michigan in 2009. He began teaching at Denison in the fall of 2012 and describes physics as “the heart of how things work in the natural world.”