Researchers create optical framed knots to encode information

'Classified knots': uOttawa researchers create optical framed knots to encode information
Top view of the framed knots generated in this work. Credit: University of Ottawa

In a world first, researchers from the University of Ottawa in collaboration with Israeli scientists have been able to create optical framed knots in the laboratory that could potentially be applied in modern technologies. Their work opens the door to new methods of distributing secret cryptographic keys—used to encrypt and decrypt data, ensure secure communication and protect private information. The group recently published their findings in Nature Communications.


“This is fundamentally important, in particular from a topology-focused perspective, since framed knots provide a platform for topological quantum computations,” explained senior author, Professor Ebrahim Karimi, Canada Research Chair in Structured Light at the University of Ottawa.

“In addition, we used these non-trivial optical structures as information carriers and developed a security protocol for classical communication where information is encoded within these framed knots.”

The concept

The researchers suggest a simple do-it-yourself lesson to help us better understand framed knots, those three-dimensional objects that can also be described as a surface.

“Take a narrow strip of a paper and try to make a knot,” said first author Hugo Larocque, uOttawa alumnus and current Ph.D. student at MIT.

“The resulting object is referred to as a framed knot and has very interesting and important mathematical features.”

The group tried to achieve the same result but within an optical beam, which presents a higher level of difficulty. After a few tries (and knots that looked more like knotted strings), the group came up with what they were looking for: a knotted ribbon structure that is quintessential to framed knots.

'Classified knots': uOttawa researchers create optical framed knots to encode information
Encryption scheme of a framed braid within a framed knot. The knot along with a pair of numbers can be used to recover the encrypted braid by means of a procedure relying on prime factorization. Credit: University of Ottawa

“In order to add this ribbon, our group relied on beam-shaping techniques manipulating the vectorial nature of light,” explained Hugo Larocque. “By modifying the oscillation direction of the light field along an “unframed” optical knot, we were able to assign a frame to the latter by “gluing” together the lines traced out by these oscillating fields.”

According to the researchers, structured light beams are being widely exploited for encoding and distributing information.

“So far, these applications have been limited to physical quantities which can be recognized by observing the beam at a given position,” said uOttawa Postdoctoral Fellow and co-author of this study, Dr. Alessio D’Errico.

“Our work shows that the number of twists in the ribbon orientation in conjunction with prime number factorization can be used to extract a so-called “braid representation” of the knot.”

“The structural features of these objects can be used to specify quantum information processing programs,” added Hugo Larocque. “In a situation where this program would want to be kept secret while disseminating it between various parties, one would need a means of encrypting this “braid” and later deciphering it. Our work addresses this issue by