Imagine you need to transfer $1 billion. Will an internet transfer be secure? A certified cheque? How do you know that by the time the transaction finishes your money lands in the right person’s hands?

The researchers at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing think they have the key. And it’s really small.

Thomas Jennewein, associate professor of physics at the University of Waterloo is currently researching quantum computation key distribution using entangled photons as a way to create safe communication systems.

Jennewein explains that even in today’s modern world, the safest method to exchange important information is still to transfer paper or a hard drive – despite the fact that these two technologies can be easily copied without leaving a trace of evidence.

Quantum photons can be copied, but unlike a file on a USB stick, the act of copying always leaves a trace in the transmission. Called “dirt” this trace tells users somebody has tampered with the data.

Crucial information is encoded through individual photons, which are sent between nodes. The photons that pass between two nodes create a joint key that completes the secure quantum key.

The transfer of the information in the photons is extremely hard to decipher because the info can break apart or get noisy if tapped. The refinement of this research has massive business potential, far beyond the academic realm.  Jennewein sees businesses, banks and governments using this technology in the future.

However, sending photons a long distance is a challenge. The current limit is only 100km.

The solution may lay in satellites. The Institute of Quantum Computing is joining other business and government partners to build quicker-to-launch space missions using small satellites through Communitech’s DATA.BASE project.

In February, FedDev Ontario awarded $6.4 million to Communitech, Waterloo Region’s commercialization hub for digital media, to oversee a project to monetize marine shipping data.

Communitech will use the funds, to be matched by public and private-sector partners, to work with Cambridge, Ont.-based exactEarth and UTIAS to build, launch and mine real-time data from the two small satellites. In the future, it's hoped that similar satellites will help Jennewein create trusted nodes that can pass over ground stations and exchange quantum keys.

Says Jennewein, “It’s the missing link in transmission.”