Blog > Separability-Preserving Operators in Entanglement Theory

Separability-Preserving Operators in Entanglement Theory

One of the key concepts in quantum information theory is the difference between separable states and entangled states. A pure quantum state (that is, a unit vector) v ∈ CnCn is said to be separable if it can be written as v = a ⊗ b for some a,b ∈ Cn; otherwise v is called entangled. In this post we will investigate what operators preserve the set of separable pure states, as well as what operators entangle all separable pure states.

Separable Pure State Preservers and Entangling Gates

In the design of quantum algorithms, entangling gates play a very important role. Entangling gates are unitary operators that are able to generate entanglement. A bit more specifically, a unitary operator U ∈ Mn ⊗ Mn (where Mn is the space of n × n complex matrices) is called an entangling gate if there exists a separable pure state v = a ⊗ b ∈ CnCn such that Uv is entangled. Conversely, we will say that a unitary operator U preserves separability if Uv is separable whenever v is separable.

In order to answer the question of what unitaries preserve separability, it is instructive to consider some simple examples (this is often a useful way to formulate conjectures regarding preserver problems). For example, it is clear that if U = A ⊗ B for some unitary operators A, B ∈ Mn, then U preserves separability (because U(a ⊗ b) = Aa ⊗ Bb is separable). Another example of a unitary operator that preserves separability is the swap (or flip) operator S defined on separable states by S(a ⊗ b) = b ⊗ a (the action of S on the rest of CnCn is determined by extending linearly). It turns out that these are essentially the only operators that preserve separability [1,2,3]:

Theorem 1. Let U ∈ Mn ⊗ Mn be a unitary operator. Then U preserves separability (i.e., U is not an entangling gate) if and only if there exist unitary operators A, B ∈ Mn such that either U = A ⊗ B or U = S(A ⊗ B).

As we already saw, the “if” direction of the above result is trivial – the meat and potatoes of the theorem comes from the “only if” direction (as is typically the case with results about linear preservers). Theorem 1 was first proved in [1] essentially by case analysis and checking the action of a separability-preserving unitary on a basis of CnCn, and was subsequently re-proved using similar techniques (but with different motivations and connections) in [2]. The result was proved in [3] by using the vector-operator isomorphism and the fact that a linear map Φ : Mn → Mn preserves the set of rank-1 operators if and only if there exist A, B ∈ Mn such that either Φ(X) ≡ AXB or Φ(X) ≡ AXtB [4].

Theorem 1 also follows as a simple corollary of several related results that have recently been proved in [5,6]. A version of Theorem 1 for multipartite systems (i.e., systems that are the tensor product of more than two copies of Cn) can be found in [3] and [7].

Universal Entangling Gates

A universal entangling gate is, as its name suggests, a stronger form of an entangling gate – it is a unitary operator U such that U(a ⊗ b) is entangled for all a, b ∈ Cn (contrast this with entangling gates, which require only that U(a ⊗ b) is entangled for some a, b ∈ Cn). The structure of universal entangling gates is much less well-understood than that of entangling gates, though we can still at least say when they exist.

It is not difficult to convince yourself that universal entangling gates can’t exist in small dimensions. Let’s begin by supposing n = 2. The set of pure states in C2C2 can be regarded as a 7-dimensional real manifold (7 = 2 × (n × n) – 1, where we subtract one because pure states all have unit length), while the set of separable pure states in C2C2 can be regarded as a 5-dimensional real manifold (5 = (2 × n – 1) + (2 × n – 1) – 1, where the final one is subtracted because the overall phase of the first system relative to the second system is irrelevant). Thus, if U ∈ M2 ⊗ M2 were a universal entangler, it would have to send a 5-dimensional manifold into the 7 – 5 = 2 remaining dimensions of the space, which seems unlikely. Similarly, if n = 3 and U ∈ M3 ⊗ M3 were a universal entangler, it would have to send a 9-dimensional manifold into the 17 – 9 = 8 remaining dimensions of the space, which also seems unlikely.

Indeed, this type of argument was made rigorous via methods of algebraic geometry in [8], where the following result was proved:

Theorem 2. There exists a universal entangling gate in Mn ⊗ Mn if and only if n ≥ 4.

Despite knowing when universal entangling gates exist, we still don’t have a characterization of such operators, nor do we even have many explicit examples (does anyone have an explicit example for 3 ⊗ 4 or 4 ⊗ 4 systems?). Similar techniques to those used in the proof of Theorem 2 should also shed light on when universal entangling gates exist in multipartite systems Mn1 ⊗ Mn2 ⊗ … ⊗ Mnk, but to my knowledge this calculation has not been explicitly carried out.


  1. M. Marcus and B. N. Moyls, Transformations on tensor product spaces. Pacific Journal of Mathematics 9, 1215–1221 (1959).
  2. F. Hulpke, U. V. Poulsen, A. Sanpera, A. Sen De, U. Sen, and M. Lewenstein, Unitarity as preservation of entropy and entanglement in quantum systems. Foundations of Physics 36, 477–499 (2006). E-print: arXiv:quant-ph/0407118
  3. N. Johnston, Characterizing Operations Preserving Separability Measures via Linear Preserver Problems. To appear in Linear and Multilinear Algebra (2011). E-print: arXiv:1008.3633 [quant-ph]
  4. L. Beasley, Linear operators on matrices: the invariance of rank k matrices. Linear Algebra and its Applications 107, 161–167 (1988).
  5. E. Alfsen and F. Shultz, Unique decompositions, faces, and automorphisms of separable states. Journal of Mathematical Physics 51, 052201 (2010). E-print: arXiv:0906.1761 [math.OA]
  6. S. Friedland, C.-K. Li, Y.-T. Poon, and N.-S. Sze, The automorphism group of separable states in quantum information theory. Journal of Mathematical Physics 52, 042203 (2011). E-print: arXiv:1012.4221 [quant-ph]
  7. R. Westwick, Transformations on tensor spaces. Pacific Journal of Mathematics 23, 613–620 (1967).
  8. J. Chen, R. Duan, Z. Ji, M. Ying, J. Yu, Existence of Universal Entangler. Journal of Mathematical Physics 49, 012103 (2008). E-print: arXiv:0704.1473 [quant-ph]
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