A team of Chinese scientists has won a prestigious US award for a 2017 study that many say has laid the groundwork for ultra-secure communications.

Lead scientist Pan Jianwei, along with 33 others, will be presented with the Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the oldest award presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In the 2017 study, Pan and his team successfully demonstrated the ability to distribute entangled photons across unprecedented distances, opening the door for the practical application of cutting-edge, ultra-secure communication.

The scientists were able to do this by sending the photons from a satellite transmitter to earth, an innovation that extended the distance across which the “entanglement distribution” could be achieved by minimizing particle degradation.

The advancement saw entanglement photons travel more than 1,200 km, versus a previous limit of 100 km achieved in tests conducted across land.

The Chinese team’s achievement, observers say, marks a big step towards the practical application of a potentially unhackable encryption method called quantum key distribution.

“Secure communication is of crucial importance in the modern world,” said Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of Science and chair of the Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee. “In principle, methods based on the phenomenon of quantum entanglement — about which Einstein was very skeptical, referring to it as ‘spooky action at a distance’ — represent solutions to the problem of perfectly secure communication.”

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