Securing quantum communications: a talk with Prof. Symeon Chatzinotas on the LUQCIA project

Writer Samira Joineau
Prof. Symeon Chatzinotas SnT Luxembourg LUQCIA

The field of quantum communications has rapidly gained traction in recent years due to its potential to revolutionize cybersecurity and networking in face of the future threat of quantum attacks. Quantum communication relies on the principles of quantum mechanics to transmit information securely over long distances without the risk of undetected interception. However, this technology is still in its nascent stages, and there are significant challenges to be overcome before it can be fully deployed in practical settings.

In this sense, in March 2022 SnT launched the Luxembourg Quantum Communication Infrastructure (LUQCIA) project, funded by the European Union – Next Generation EU, with the collaboration of the Department of Media, Connectivity and Digital Policy.

To know more about this project, what it stems from, and its long-term ambition, Farvest IT had a talk with Prof. Symeon Chatzinotas, Head of the Signal Processing and Communications Research Group at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) of the University of Luxembourg.

Can you explain the LUQCIA project and its objective to build a national testbed for Quantum Communication Infrastructure (QCI)?

LUQCIA is a five-year project to build a national testbed for quantum communication infrastructure (QCI) and enable advanced collaborative research in this domain. The project aims to make Luxembourg competitive in this field at a European and international level, and foster an active research ecosystem by pooling resources from public and private stakeholders. And, while its immediate target is QKD applications, which are more likely to have an impact in the short term, the testbed infrastructure is being designed to also support nascent areas, such as space-based QKD and quantum information networks.

How will the LUQCIA facilitate innovative research across all layers of quantum communication networks?

In essence, we are building a lab for QKD distribution in Luxembourg. The preliminary design of the testbed foresees two nodes in the grounds of the University of Luxembourg, which can be federated with similar national initiatives by private companies (e.g., SES and ESA’s EAGLE-1 initiative) to create more complicated topologies and pave the way to QKD through satellite systems. This means that, once the testbed is ready, public and private actors will be able to conduct research and test their quantum key distribution applications, quantum information networks, and much more, in the established framework of the SnT partnership programme.

Can you describe the economic impact of the LUQCIA project for the country, and what are the potential use cases for private stakeholders – notably in cybersecurity?

The project entails multiple lasting benefits for the Grand Duchy. With the forecasted advent of quantum computing in the next five to ten years, the encryption protocols currently in use will be broken in a very short time, with unimaginable consequences for data privacy and security.

In the short term, having a quantum infrastructure available will allow companies such as financial institutions to stay ahead of the competition by testing the future gold standard for cybersecurity for later implementation. In the short to mid-term, the lab – in the framework of the project LUX4QCI, launched in February 2023 – will create a local talent pool in quantum communications and post-quantum cybersecurity, which will in turn attract more FinTech and Space companies to the country. In fact, as early as September 2023, SnT will start classes in quantum communication as part of a training program where professionals will be given the opportunity to learn from the leaders in this field in Luxembourg. The Lux4QCI project is co-funded by the Digital Europe Programme.

In the long term, the infrastructure we will have tested in LUQCIA and further implemented with LUX4QCI will make Luxembourg a key QCI node in the heart of Europe, with far ranging economic benefits.

What’s more, SES is currently leading a European consortium to build the first sovereign European end-to-end space-based QKD system, EAGLE-1, which will include a state-of-the-art operation centre in Luxembourg. We are planning to test space-based QKD in LUQCIA in connection with EAGLE-1, but this is only the beginning. The quantum space revolution is upon us, and its European foundations are firmly rooted in Luxembourg.

What are the potential societal benefits of practical deployment of quantum communications with a long-term horizon, and how will this impact data security and the vision of Quantum Internet for all citizens?

The long-term vision for LUQCIA is to empower technological advancements towards the quantum internet; the project enables us to do all the necessary preliminary testing. With LUX4QCI, we are building the country’s QCI infrastructure, assessing different topologies and probing its encryption and networking capabilities. Due to its size, Luxembourg is well on track to be the first European country with a full-fledged national QCI infrastructure, which will make it a unique case study in quantum communications for society, and open countless opportunities for residents and companies alike. And while the cost of quantum computers won’t allow citizens to own one at home in the foreseeable future, the quantum internet will allow public institutions and companies to rely on an enormous computational power that will be used for complex modelling, finance applications, advancements in pharmacology, and much more.

To make an example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the local COVID-19 Task Force relied on the supercomputer MeluXina to develop a computational model of the progression of the disease that allowed the government to take rapid and effective action, such as avoiding extensive lockdowns, with great benefits for society. At this stage, it’s difficult to even fathom what the much larger computational power of the quantum internet will allow us to do.

What is the ambition of the LUQCIA project in terms of generating funding to maintain and expand the capabilities of the testbed beyond the original 5-year plan?

At SnT, we work with public and private actors through an established partnership model, the SnT Partnership Programme. A partnership with SnT is a joint investment in a multi-annual research project with concrete outcomes. As collaboration is at the heart of our Partnership Programme, we co-invest 50/50 and also jointly select and supervise project staff. This framework is very advantageous for companies, and it also enables them to later access public-private funding programmes, such as some FNR programmes.

On the public side, our quantum communication infrastructure will connect to that of other European countries in the context of the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI), an initiative from the European Commission aiming to put Europe at the cutting edge of quantum capabilities by 2030. In LUX4QCI, SnT is already leading a consortium of seven Luxembourg-based partners with the objective to establish 7 QKD Points of Presence in public and private institutions; I am sure that many more national and international actors will be interested in testing their technologies once the infrastructure is ready.

Our future ambitions include Luxembourg’s involvement in the implementation of cross-border links, QKD certifications, and the setup of a European satellite constellation for quantum communication. At SnT, we are uniquely positioned to lead many of these efforts in the very near future.