Quantum LEAP for medical research: Scientists develop a microscope that can zoom in on tiny structures with 35 per cent more clarity


  • Light beams are made up of individual packets of energy known as ‘photons’.
  • This results in so-called ‘shot noise’ which limits the performance of the microscope.
  • Typically, this problem is overcome by increasing the intensity of the light to compensate.
  • But intensities above a certain threshold can damage biological samples.
  • Experts from the University of Queensland overcome it with ‘quantum entanglement’
  • Using linked photons allows more information to be obtained per used photon
  • In this way, the noise can be reduced without damaging the studied samples.

A quantum-powered microscope that can zoom in on tiny structures with 35 percent greater clarity could be a huge leap forward for medical research, a study has reported.

Researchers from the University of Queensland created the instrument, which is capable of revealing biological structures that would otherwise be impossible to see.

Specifically, it can image biological cells and other objects at a micrometer (micron) scale – that is, 70 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

It operates using quantum entanglement – ​​the effect that theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once referred to as the ‘spooky interaction at a distance’.

The new microscope design is the first entanglement-based sensor capable of outperforming existing, classical physics-based technology.

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A quantum-powered microscope that can zoom in on tiny structures with 35 percent greater clarity could be a huge leap forward for medical research, a study has reported. Image: An artist’s impression of the new microscope in action. The twin pulses in the light beam represent the entangled images that the team uses to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio of the resulting image.

Polystyrene beads by quantum microscope (main) and under a conventional, bright-field microscope (inset)

A live yeast cell by a quantum microscope (main) and under a conventional, bright-field microscope (inset)

Experts from the University of Queensland created the instrument, which is capable of revealing biological structures that would otherwise be impossible to see. Specifically, it can image biological cells and other objects at a micrometer (micron) scale – that is, 70 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Image: polystyrene beads, left, and a live yeast cell as imaged by a quantum microscope (main) and under a conventional, bright-field microscope (inset).

This phenomenon sees particles that behave ‘entangled’ as if connected even when separated, meaning that the action of one changes the behavior of the other.

Traditionally, the performance of light-based microscopes is limited in how light exists as discrete energy packets called photons.

Because photons are emitted from a source (such as a laser, for example) at random times, light is subject to so-called ‘shot noise’, which restricts sensitivity and resolution.

The usual way to overcome this limit is to increase the light intensity – resulting in more photons and statistically averaging the fluctuations.

However, with biological specimens, increasing the light intensity can actually cause the object to be viewed under a microscope, defeating the purpose.

However, using entangled photons allows more information to be obtained per single photon, which means that noise can be reduced without increasing the light intensity.

‘The best light microscopes use bright lasers that are billions of times brighter than the sun,’ explained paper author and quantum physicist Warwick Bowen, of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

‘Fragile biological systems like human cells can only survive in them for a short time and this is a major pathway.

‘The quantum entanglement in our microscope provides 35 percent better clarity without destroying the cell, allowing us to see microscopic biological structures that would otherwise be invisible.

‘The benefits are clear – from a better understanding of living systems to better diagnostic techniques.’

The microscope, pictured, operates through quantum entanglement – ​​the effect that theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once referred to as 'spooky interactions at a distance'.

The microscope, pictured, operates through quantum entanglement – ​​the effect that theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once referred to as ‘spooky interactions at a distance’.

Using entangled photons allows more information to be captured per single photon – meaning noise can be reduced without increasing the light intensity and damaging the biological samples being studied.  Image: A diagram of the working of the microscope

Using entangled photons allows more information to be captured per single photon – meaning noise can be reduced without increasing the light intensity and damaging the biological samples being studied. Image: A diagram of the working of the microscope

Professor Bowen said, ‘Entanglement is believed to lie at the heart of a quantum revolution.

‘We have finally demonstrated that sensors using this can replace existing, non-quantum technology.

‘This is exciting – it is the first evidence of the paradigm-changing potential of entanglement for sensing.’

'It's exciting.  This is the first evidence of entanglement's paradigm-changing potential for sensing,' said Professor Bowen (pictured here aligning the quantum microscope with Waleed Muhammad in the center, right, Caxterre Casaccio, center left, and Lars Madsen, right)

‘It’s exciting. This is the first evidence of entanglement’s paradigm-changing potential for sensing,’ said Professor Bowen (pictured here aligning the quantum microscope with Waleed Muhammad in the center, right, Caxterre Casaccio, center left, and Lars Madsen, right)

According to Professor Bowen, quantum entanglement-based technology is ‘set to revolutionize computing, communication and sensing.’

‘Perfectly secure communication was demonstrated a few decades ago as the first demonstration of a full quantum advantage over conventional technologies.

As the first demonstration of the absolute advantage in computing, computing faster than any potentially conventional computer was demonstrated by Google two years ago.

‘The last piece in the puzzle was sensing, and now we’ve closed that gap. This opens the door for some massive technological revolutions.

He concluded, “This breakthrough will lead to all kinds of new technologies – from better navigation systems to better MRI machines, you name it.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature.

What is quantum entanglement?

In quantum physics, entangled particles remain connected so that the actions of one affect the behavior of the other, even if they are separated by a large distance.

This means that if you measure ‘up’ for the spin of one photon from an entangled pair, the spin of the other, which is measured immediately afterwards, will be ‘down’ – even if the two are opposite…

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