The IST-QuComm collaboration is made up of research groups in Sweden, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and the UK, plus a team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US. Quantum cryptography allows two parties to share a secret "key" that could make communications between them much more secure than existing cryptographic techniques by encoding the key with single photons. Any attempts by a third party to eavesdrop on the communications can be readily detected. Quantum cryptography could have applications in electronic communications, e-banking and e-voting.

Progress in quantum cryptography and related areas - such as entanglement and teleportation - has been rapid in recent years. Last year, for instance, physicists at the University of Vienna succeeded in sending entangled photons 600 metres across the river Danube, while a group at the University of Geneva recently demonstrated quantum teleportation at telecom wavelengths through a 4-kilometre optical fibre cable. The IST-QuComm consortium also performed the first ever quantum cryptographic bank transfer over a 6-kilometre fibre link in Vienna this summer.

The prizes were awarded in Prague today by Janez Potocnik, EU commissioner for science and research.