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Generation of single photons with highly tunable wave shape from a cold atomic ensemble

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The generation of ultra-narrowband, pure and storable single photons with widely tunable wave shape is an enabling step toward hybrid quantum networks requiring interconnection of remote disparate quantum systems. It allows interaction of quantum light with several material systems, including photonic quantum memories, single trapped ions and opto-mechanical systems. Previous approaches have offered a limited tuning range of the photon duration of at most one order of magnitude. Here we report on a heralded single photon source with controllable emission time based on a cold atomic ensemble, which can generate photons with temporal durations varying over three orders of magnitude up to 10 μs without a significant change of the readout efficiency. We prove the nonclassicality of the emitted photons, show that they are emitted in a pure state, and demonstrate that ultra-long photons with nonstandard wave shape can be generated, which are ideally suited for several quantum information tasks.


A vast range of experiments in quantum information science and technology rely on single photons as carriers of information1. Single photon sources are thus key components and have been continuously improved over the past years2. The spectrum and temporal shape of the emitted photons are important parameters of such sources3. The generation of ultra-long single photons is for example an essential requirement for precise interactions with media exhibiting a sharp energy structure like trapped atoms, ions or doped solids, which have been proposed as quantum memories for light4,5,6 and also with cavity opto-mechanical systems7,8,9,10,11.

Several approaches to achieve narrow linewidth photons have been investigated, including for example, cavity-enhanced spontaneous parametric down conversion12,13,14, cold atomic ensembles15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22, single atoms23,24, quantum dots25 or trapped ions26,27. Moreover, significant efforts have been devoted to generate single photons with tunable temporal shapes20,26,28,29,30,31,32,33,34, which is important for many applications in quantum information science35,36. However, most of the previous approaches offered only a limited tuning range of the photon duration up to at most one order of magnitude20,26,32.

In this paper, we demonstrate a single photon source with a wide tuning range of three orders of magnitude, up to single photon durations of 10 μs. To our knowledge, this represents the longest photons generated from an atomic ensemble. Our source is based on a cold atomic ensemble quantum memory (QM) following the scheme of Duan, Lukin, Cirac, and Zoller (DLCZ)37, which allows us to release the single photons on demand after a programmable delay. This is essential for temporal synchronization tasks as for example needed for quantum repeater architectures38,39 or synchronization of photon pair sources40. In contrast to most former DLCZ experiments, we apply readout pulses with very flexible temporal shapes, which are accurately controlled over several orders of magnitude in amplitude and time. This enables the generation of ultra-long single photons with very flexible wave shapes and coherence times much longer than the lifetime of the involved excited state. We characterize the emitted photons by measuring their heralded and unheralded autocorrelation functions, demonstrating a high degree of anti-bunching and purity.


Heralded single photon source with controllable emission time

Our heralded single photon source is based on a cold ensemble of N identical 87Rb atoms in a magneto-optical trap. Each atom exhibits a Λ-type level scheme consisting of a ground state |g〉=|52S1/2, F=2, mF=2〉 a storage state |s〉=|52S1/2, F=1, mF=0〉 and an excited state |e〉=|52P3/2, F=2, mF=1〉 (see Fig. 1b). The atoms are initially prepared in the ground state |g〉 by optical pumping. A weak write pulse, detuned from the |g〉→|e〉 transition, probabilistically creates a delocalized single-collective spin excitation (spin-wave) in the memory by transferring a single atom into the |s〉 state. This process is heralded by a Raman scattered write photon. The state of the spin-wave is to first order given by

Figure 1: Experimental set-up and level scheme.
Figure 1

(a) Experimental set-up. Write pulse (W) and read pulse (R) are sent counterpropagating into the atomic cloud. Write and read photons (denoted by w and r) are sent after polarization filtering via fibres to frequency filtering cavities before being detected by SPDs. (b) Energy levels of the D2 line of 87Rb and coupling scheme for the DLCZ experiment.

where xj denotes the spatial position of the jth atom and kW and kw are the wave vectors of the write pulse and the write photon, respectively. Neglecting noise, the joint state of the write photon and the associated spin-wave is described by a two-mode squeezed state as

with p the probability to create a spin-wave correlated with a write photon in the detection mode. After a programmable delay, the spin-wave is converted back to a single read photon by a read pulse, which is resonant with the |s〉→|e〉 transition. Due to collective interference of all atoms, the read photon is emitted in a well defined spatial mode given by the phase matching condition kr=kR+kWkw, where kR and kr are the wave vectors of the read pulse and read photon, respectively. The noise-corrected retrieval efficiency is defined as ηret=(pw,rpw,nr)/pw, where pw,r is the probability to detect a coincidence between a write and a read photon, pw,nr is the probability to detect a coincidence due to background noise and pw is the probability to detect a write photon per trial.

Experimental set-up

The experimental set-up is shown in Fig. 1a. All light beams are derived from diode lasers resonant to the D2 line of 87Rb at 780 nm. To generate the desired laser pulses, the beams are modulated by acousto-optic modulators in double-pass configuration driven by an arbitrary waveform generator (Signadyne AWG-H3384) with a sampling frequency of 1 GS s−1 and amplifiers (AA Optoelectronic AMPA-B-34). We combine a magnetic gradient of 20 G cm−1 with cooling light (red detuned from the |F=2〉→|F′=3〉 transition) and repumping light (resonant with the |F=1〉→|F′=2〉 transition) to load N≈108 Rubidium atoms into the MOT. After a 1.6 ms long optical molasses phase, we prepare all population in the |g〉 Zeeman sublevel by applying repumping light and σ+ polarized optical pumping (OP) light on the |F=2〉→|F′=2〉 transition. The spin-wave is generated by sending a write pulse of 15 ns duration (full-width at half-maximum, FWHM), which is red detuned by 40 MHz from the |g〉→|e〉 transition. The heralding write photon is collected at an angle of 1° with respect to the write/read pulse axis. By changing the intensity of the write pulse, we can adjust the probability pw to detect a write photon per trial. For the experiments presented in this paper, pw ranges between 0.25% and 1% depending on the measurement. The read pulse, counterpropagating with the write pulse, is resonant with the |s〉→|e〉 transition and its temporal shape can be precisely controlled. The read photon is collected in the same spatial mode but opposite direction of the write photon. By measuring the transmission of classical light sent through the photons axis and by comparison of experimental and theoretical data in Figs 2 and 5, we infer a coupling efficiency of the read photon into the first fibre of ηfibre≈60%. The polarization of the write and read pulses in the frame of the atoms is σ and σ+, respectively, while the detected write and read photons are σ+ and σ polarized. We use a combination of quarter- and half-waveplates with polarization beamsplitters to transmit only the photons with the correct polarizations. The write and read photons are moreover spectrally filtered by identical monolithic Fabry–Perot cavities with ηfilter≈20% total transmission (including cavity transmission and subsequent fibre coupling), before being detected by single photon detectors (SPDs) with ηdet=43% efficiency and a dark count rate of 130 Hz.

Figure 2: Temporal duration of the read photon versus the duration of the driving read pulse.
Figure 2

Experimentally measured durations (FWHM) (blue circles, errorbars smaller than symbol size) are compared with numerical simulations (red diamonds). The insets show two examples of the read photon wave shape as reconstructed from the number of counts and arrival times in the SPDs (blue histograms) as well as the simulated wave shapes (red lines) for which we allowed at most 10% adjustment of the input parameters to account for experimental inaccuracies.

Figure 3: Retrieval efficiency.
Figure 3

Fibre-coupled retrieval efficiency versus read photon duration (FWHM) for pw=0.5%. Experimental data (blue dots) are compared with numerical simulations (see Supplementary Note 2) for realistic (red diamonds) and ideal (orange diamonds) conditions. The red shaded area depicts the expected range if the input parameters of the simulation are varied by ±10%. The errorbars (±1 s.d.) correspond to the propagated Poissonian error of the photon counting statistics.

Figure 4: Measurement of correlation functions.
Figure 4

Second order autocorrelation function of the generated read photons, (a) conditioned on the detection of a write photon in the same experimental trial at pw=0.25% and (b) not conditioned on a write photon detection at pw=1%. The experimental data (blue dots) are compared with a theoretical model accounting for detector imperfections, that is, a measured dark count rate of 130 Hz (blue lines). The dashed green line in (a) represents the classical bound of a coherent state and the dashed purple line in (b) shows the expected trace for a photon state with two modes. The errorbars (±1 s.d.) correspond to the propagated Poissonian error of the photon counting statistics.

Figure 5: Single photons with nonstandard wave shapes.
Figure 5

Temporal wave shape of the read photon for (a) a rising exponential and (b) a doubly peaked (time-bin) read pulse wave shape. Experimental data (blue histograms) are compared with numerical simulations (red line) for which we allowed at most 10% adjustment of the input parameters with respect to the measured data. Both histograms were taken at pw=0.5%.


We now present the experimental results and compare them to detailed theoretical calculations. To generate read photons of variable length, we change the duration of the Gaussian-shaped read pulse as well as the storage time over several orders of magnitude (see Fig. 2). The shortest read pulse duration of 17 ns leads to a read photon of around 23 ns duration. After that initial data point, we observe a quite linear increase of the read photon duration with the read pulse duration up to several tens of microseconds. The lower limit of photon duration is given by the limited optical depth OD=5.5 in our experiment, which leads to limited superradiant emission of the read photon41. A further technical limitation is given by the finite bandwidth of the spectral filtering cavity of about 60 MHz, which additionally increases the detected duration for short read photons. This effect, together with the deviation from the adiabatic condition, partly explains the slight difference of the first data points in Fig. 2 from the theoretical prediction (see below). The upper limit of photon duration is given by the spin-wave linewidth, which is mainly determined by thermal atomic motion and spurious external magnetic fields. This currently limits the maximal storage time in the memory to about 50 μs (see Supplementary Note 1 and Supplementary Fig. 1). In addition, the photon duration will also be limited by the coherence time of the read laser, which has a specified linewidth of 20 kHz. However, within the above limits, we demonstrate that the photon duration is fully tunable and that the Gaussian wave shape of the driving read pulse is preserved in the readout process (see insets).

The dynamics of the write and read photon pairs is modelled using the Heisenberg–Langevin equations. For slowly varying optical fields propagating in a pencil-shape atomic ensemble, explicit expressions for both the write and read photon fields can be obtained in the adiabatic approximation42. These field expressions can be subsequently used to reproduce the read photon emissions conditioned on the detection of a write photon from first and second order correlation functions (see Supplementary Note 2). The result of these simulations which are based on independent measurements reproduce very well the experimental data presented in Fig. 2.

To characterize the retrieval efficiency of the photon source, we optimized the intensity of the driving read pulse for each duration (see Supplementary Note 1 and Supplementary Fig. 2). Figure 3 shows the highest achievable fibre-coupled retrieval efficiency =ηret/(ηfilter·ηdet) versus the read photon duration, which corresponds to the probability of finding a read photon in the optical fibre after the vacuum cell, that is, corrected for filtering and detector efficiencies only. We observe a constant retrieval efficiency of about =20% up to a read photon duration of 10 μs. Our numerical simulations match very well with the experimental data and also show that the efficiency in the constant region is just limited by the finite OD of our atomic cloud. We verify numerically that in the absence of technical noise and considering infinite spin-wave coherence, for OD=50 an intrinsic retrieval efficiency of 80% can be achieved while maintaining control of the photon shape. The decrease of the efficiency at around 10 μs is due to dephasing of the spin-wave induced by atomic motion, spurious external magnetic field gradients43 and the finite read laser coherence time. In particular, our numerical simulations show clearly that in the absence of technical noise and in the limit of infinite spin coherence, the efficiency is kept constant (see orange diamonds and dashed line in Fig. 3).

Next, we characterized the state of the emitted read photons by measuring their heralded and unheralded second order autocorrelation functions depending on the read photon duration. To perform these measurements, we inserted a balanced fibre beamsplitter into the read photon arm after the spectral filtering cavity, with both output ports connected to SPDs r1 and r2. First, we recorded the autocorrelation function conditioned on the detection of a write photon, defined as44:

where pr1,r2|w denotes the probability to measure a coincidence between both read photon detections conditioned on a write photon detection, and pr1|w, pr2|w are the probabilities to detect a read photon via r1 or r2 conditioned on a write photon detection. The data shown in Fig. 4a clearly demonstrate the nonclassicality of the photons (that is, <1) up to photon durations of >10 μs. However, we do not reach the ideal value of =0 of perfect single photons. For short read photon durations, we are still limited by noise due to higher-order components of the spin-wave, which can be addressed by reducing pw. In fact, the observed ≈0.4 is consistent with former measurements at similar values for pw and read pulse durations43. For longer read photon durations, we observe an increase of , which can be simply explained by a higher number of dark counts of the SPDs for longer read photon detection gates (see upper axis in Fig. 4). The solid blue line shows the prediction of a non-perturbative theoretical model accounting for detector imperfections45. The agreement between the model and the experimental data is excellent.

The single mode nature of the photon state is characterized by the unconditional autocorrelation function (see Fig. 4b). For an ideal two-mode squeezed state, where the write and read photons are each emitted in a single temporal mode, one expects =2, which is quite well fulfilled by the measured data up to a read photon duration of roughly 1 μs. For longer durations, we observe a drop, which can be attributed to either an increasing temporal multimodality of the read photon ( scales as 1+1/K with K denoting the number of photon modes46) or to measurement imperfections because of higher dark counts for larger detection gates. The solid blue line shows the theoretical prediction, assuming read photons emitted in a single mode. The excellent agreement between experiment and theory suggests that the read photons are emitted mostly in a single mode. For comparison, we also plotted the expected behaviour for a single photon with K=2 modes (see purple dashed line), which significantly differs from the measured data, therefore, confirming the single mode nature of the emitted read photons. Consequently, the read photons are close to being Fourier transform limited, giving linewidths ranging from around 20 MHz to <100 kHz. This, together with the conditional , allows us to conclude that the heralded read emission is close to a pure single photon.

Finally, we investigate the flexibility of the temporal shape of the generated read photons. Instead of a Gaussian-shaped read pulse, we apply read pulses with a rising exponential envelope or a doubly peaked wave shape. These two examples are important for a broad class of applications in quantum information science. Photons with rising exponential wave shape exhibit the highest possible absorbance when interacting with two-level systems35,47 and can be very efficiently loaded in optical cavities36,48. The temporal shape of the generated rising exponential read photon is shown in Fig. 5a. The driving read pulse had a 1/e width of 300 ns. We observe a similar retrieval efficiency of =19.8% as for a standard Gaussian-shaped pulse of same duration (c.f. Fig. 3). The conditioned autocorrelation function of the rising exponential photon is =0.31±0.14 (taken at pw=0.25%) and =0.73±0.12 (taken at pw=0.5%), which is clearly in the nonclassical regime.

As a final example, we send a doubly peaked read pulse into the prepared QM. The intensity and duration of the first readout peak was chosen such that the stored spin-wave is read out with half of the maximal efficiency and for the second peak the retrieval efficiency is maximized. This leads to a read photon with a shape shown in Fig. 5b. Photons with such a delocalized shape can be used to create time-bin qubits, which have applications in robust long-distance quantum communication49,50. The efficiency of the generated time-bin photon is =25%, comparable to the standard Gaussian-shaped photons, and the conditioned autocorrelation function is =0.54±0.11 (taken at pw=0.25%) and =0.75±0.08 (taken at pw=0.5%), which is clearly in the nonclassical regime.


We demonstrated a highly flexible heralded single photon source with intrinsic storage capability following the DLCZ protocol37 in a cold 87Rb ensemble. Compared with other approaches for narrowband single photon generation, such as cavity-enhanced spontaneous down conversion12,13,14, single atoms and ions in cavities23,24,26,27 and four-wave mixing in atomic ensembles20,22, our single photon source offers an unprecedented photon duration tunability of three orders of magnitude and the possibility to generate photons of highly flexible wave shape and an efficient emission on a single spatial and temporal mode without the need of a high-finesse cavity (see Supplementary Note 4 for a more detailed discussion).

Another important feature of our approach is that our single photon source has intrinsic storage capability, which naturally enables synchronization with other identical sources. In the following, we discuss that possibility with our current set-up. A deterministic synchronization of two such sources depends on the average time separation between successful heralding events (write photon detections) and the maximal storage time of the source. The time between heralding events depends on several parameters: First, the power of the write pulse determines the probability pw and hence the detection rate of the Raman scattered write photons. However, one cannot just arbitrarily increase the write power to increase that rate because it would also lead to a degradation of the nonclassical correlations between both photons. Second, the various losses from the vacuum cell toward the final detection (mainly fibre coupling, filtering and detector efficiencies) decrease the probability and hence the rate to detect an emitted write photon quite significantly (factor 20). However, these are mainly technical issues, which could be improved by better equipment.

In our experiment, we typically operate the single photon source with a pw of around 0.5%. Using a heralded sequence (that is, sending the read pulse only when a write photon was detected), we can generate 500 trials per 1 ms interrogation time for read photon lengths of a few microseconds, which gives an average time separation between heralding events of 400 μs. This is of course much longer than the current storage time of about 50 μs and would not allow for a deterministic synchronization of two single photon sources with the current status of the experiment.

However, note that, first, it is not necessary to be in the regime where the storage time is longer than the delay between two write photon detections to start improving the synchronization time while using the QM. The important parameter is the number of write attempts that can be done during the storage time51,52. Even with the current set-up (N≈25 trials per 50 μs storage time), we would reduce the synchronization time between two sources by a factor 2N+1≈50 compared with single shot attempts51. Second, with quite moderate improvements (a storage time of 1 ms53,54 and a filtering efficiency of ηfilter=80%), the time separation between heralding events would be 100 μs, which would be 10 times shorter than the storage time, immediately enabling the deterministic synchronization of several single photon sources.

In conclusion, we demonstrated a highly flexible single photon source with intrinsic storage capability following the DLCZ protocol37 in a cold 87Rb ensemble. By varying the temporal width of the driving read pulse, the duration of the read photons could be changed over three orders of magnitude up to several tens of microseconds. Up to a read photon duration of 10 μs, we obtain a fibre-coupled retrieval efficiency of =20%, which is just limited by the OD in our experiment. We verified numerically that for OD=50 under ideal conditions, an intrinsic retrieval efficiency of 80% can be achieved while maintaining control of the photon shape. The drop in retrieval efficiency at around 10 μs is mainly due to spin-wave dephasing induced by thermal motion, which could be improved by a more sophisticated trapping of the atoms32,53. The generated read photons show a nonclassical behaviour up to durations of >10 μs for the heralded autocorrelation function and up to 1 μs we detect single photons in a pure state, currently just limited by the dark counts of our detectors. Finally, we create single photons with a nonstandard envelope like rising exponential or time-bin wave shapes, which have important applications in quantum information science. Our approach allows the generation of ultra-narrow single photons with unprecedented duration tunability and highly flexible wave shape. This will enable the interconnection of our cold atom QM with other physical systems exhibiting sharp resonances, like for example, Rb atoms prepared in a highly excited Rydberg state under the condition of EIT. Moreover, combining our approach with quantum frequency conversion techniques53,55 paves the way to the optical interconnection of the cold atom QM with different types of quantum systems, which typically demand very different photon shapes, like long-lived solid state quantum memories or opto-mechanical systems. Finally, also applying the ability to generate single photons with doubly peaked wave shapes (as shown in Fig. 5b), one could demonstrate quantum state transfer via time-bin qubits between different systems, which would be an important step toward the creation of heterogeneous quantum networks56.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request.

Additional information

How to cite this article: Farrera, P. et al. Generation of single photons with highly tunable wave shape from a cold atomic ensemble. Nat. Commun. 7, 13556 doi: 10.1038/ncomms13556 (2016).

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Research at ICFO is supported by the ERC starting grant QuLIMA, by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO) and the Fondo Europeo de Desarrollo Regional (FEDER) through grant FIS2012-37569 and FIS2015-69535-R, by MINECO Severo Ochoa through grant SEV-2015-0522, by AGAUR via 2014 SGR 1554 and by Fundació Privada Cellex. P.F. acknowledges the International PhD fellowship programme ‘la Caixa’-Severo Ochoa @ ICFO. G.H. acknowledges support by the ICFOnest+ international postdoctoral fellowship programme. Research at the University of Basel is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) through the grant number PP00P2-150579 and the Army Research Laboratory Center for Distributed Quantum Information via the project SciNet. C.T. was supported by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research, and Economy (BMWFW) and would like to thank the hospitality of the quantum optics theory group at the University of Basel.

Author information

Author notes

    • Boris Albrecht

    Present address: Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Colin Teo

    Present address: Singapore University of Technology and Design, 8 Somapah Road, 487372 Singapore


  1. ICFO-Institut de Ciencies Fotoniques, The Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, 08860 Castelldefels, Barcelona, Spain

    • Pau Farrera
    • , Georg Heinze
    • , Boris Albrecht
    •  & Hugues de Riedmatten
  2. Department of Physics, University of Basel, Klingelbergstrasse 82, 4056 Basel, Switzerland

    • Melvyn Ho
    • , Matías Chávez
    •  & Nicolas Sangouard
  3. Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

    • Colin Teo
  4. Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of Innsbruck, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria

    • Colin Teo
  5. ICREA-Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, 08015 Barcelona, Spain

    • Hugues de Riedmatten


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P.F. and G.H. performed the experiments and analysed the data. B.A. built the experimental set-up. M.H., M.C. and C.T. performed the numerical simulations. G.H. and H.d.R. wrote the paper, with inputs from all co-authors. N.S and H.d.R initiated and supervised the project.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Georg Heinze or Hugues de Riedmatten.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-2, Supplementary Notes 1-4 and Supplementary References.


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