Diamonds have long been available in pairs—say, mounted in a nice set of earrings. But physicists have now taken that pairing to a new level, linking two diamonds on the quantum level.

A group of researchers report in the December 2 issue of Science that they managed to entangle the quantum states of two diamonds separated by 15 centimeters. Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon by which two or more objects share an unseen link bridging the space between them—a hypothetical pair of entangled dice, for instance, would always land on matching numbers, even if they were rolled in different places simultaneously.

But that link is fragile, and it can be disrupted by any number of outside influences. For that reason entanglement experiments on physical systems usually take place in highly controlled laboratory setups—entangling, say, a pair of isolated atoms cooled to nearly absolute zero.

In the new study, researchers from the University of Oxford, the National Research Council of Canada and the National University of Singapore (NUS) showed that entanglement can also be achieved in macroscopic objects at room temperature. "What we have done is demonstrate that it's possible with more standard, everyday objects—if diamond can be considered an everyday object," says study co-author Ian Walmsley, an experimental physicist at Oxford. "It's possible to put them into these quantum states that you often associate with these engineered objects, if you like—these closely managed objects."

To entangle relatively large objects, Walmsley and his colleagues harnessed a collective property of diamonds: the vibrational state of their crystal lattices. By targeting a diamond with an optical pulse, the researchers can induce a vibration in the diamond, creating an excitation called a phonon—a quantum of vibrational energy. Researchers can tell when a diamond contains a phonon by checking the light of the pulse as it exits. Because the pulse has deposited a tiny bit of its energy in the crystal, one of the outbound photons is of lower energy, and hence longer wavelength, than the photons of the incoming pulse.

Walmsley and his colleagues set up an experiment that would attempt to entangle two different diamonds using phonons. They used two squares of synthetically produced diamond, each three millimeters across. A laser pulse, bisected by a beam splitter, passes through the diamonds; any photons that scatter off of the diamond to generate a phonon are funneled into a photon detector. One such photon reaching the detector signals the presence of a phonon in the diamonds.

But because of the experimental design, there is no way of knowing which diamond is vibrating. "We know that somewhere in that apparatus, there is one phonon," Walmsley says. "But we cannot tell, even in principle, whether that came from the left-hand diamond or the right-hand diamond." In quantum-mechanical terms, in fact, the phonon is not confined to either diamond. Instead the two diamonds enter an entangled state in which they share one phonon between them.

To verify the presence of entanglement, the researchers carried out a test to check that the diamonds were not acting independently. In the absence of entanglement, after all, half the laser pulses could set the left-hand diamond vibrating and the other half could act on the right-hand diamond, with no quantum correlation between the two objects. If that were the case, then the phonon would be fully confined to one diamond.

If, on the other hand, the phonon were indeed shared by the two entangled diamonds, then any detectable effect of the phonon could bear the imprint of both objects. So the researchers fired a second optical pulse into the diamonds, with the intent of de-exciting the vibration and producing a signal photon that indicates that the phonon has been removed from the system. The phonon's vibrational energy gives the optical pulse a boost, producing a photon with higher energy, or shorter wavelength, than the incoming photons and eliminating the phonon in the process.

Once again, there is no way of knowing which diamond produced the photon, because the paths leading from each diamond to the detectors are merged, so there is no way of knowing where the phonon was. But the researchers found that each of the photon paths leading from the diamonds to the detectors had an interfering effect on the other—adjusting how the two paths were joined affected the photon counts in the detectors. In essence, a single photon reaching the detectors carried information about both paths. So it cannot be said to have traveled down one path from one diamond: the photon, as with the vibrational phonon that produced it, came from both diamonds.

After running the experiment over and over again to gather statistically significant results, the researchers concluded with confidence that entanglement had indeed been achieved. "We can't be 100 percent certain that they're entangled, but our statistical analysis shows that we're 98 percent confident in that, and we think that's a pretty good outcome," Walmsley says.

The catch to using phonons for macroscopic entanglement is that they do not last long—only seven picoseconds, or seven trillionths of a second, in diamond. So the experimenters had to rely on extremely fast optical pulses to carry out their experiment, creating entangled states with phonons and then damping the phonons with the second pulse to test that entanglement just 0.35 picoseconds later.

Because of this brevity, such entanglement schemes may not take over for more established techniques using photons or single atoms, but Walmsley hopes that researchers will consider the possibilities of using fairly ordinary, room-temperature materials in quantum technologies. "I think it gives a new scenario and a new instantiation of something that helps point in that direction," he says.

Indeed, the new study is just the latest to show how quantum mechanics applies in real-world, macroscopic systems. Oxford and NUS physicist Vlatko Vedral, who was not involved in the new research, says it "beautifully illustrates" the point of Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger's famous thought experiment in which a hypothetical cat is simultaneously alive and dead. "It can't be that entanglement exists at the micro level (say of photons) but not at the macro level (say of diamonds)," because those worlds interact, Vedral wrote in an email. "Schrödinger used atoms instead of photons and cats instead of diamonds, but the point is the same."