How will quantum computing change the world?
In our previous blogpost, ‘Quantum computing explained’ we discovered the magical properties of qubits, why they are fundamental to quantum computing, and why they are so difficult to control and scale. This time we’ll delve deeper into the ways in which quantum computing can be useful, and the impact it could have on the world.
What will quantum computing be used for?
Quantum computing will radically change the way in which we simulate chemistry. With the vast processing power of quantum computers, we can begin to simulate digital versions of chemical compounds. This ‘digital twinning’ enables a number of opportunities to test out theories and predict real chemical actions, without the use of a physical lab. Let’s consider these possibilities further…
With enough qubits, quantum computers can process complex calculations at very high speeds. Quantum computers will therefore be an incredible tool for pharmaceutical companies who are looking to test the properties of a new drug or medicine. Instead of using a physical laboratory, which is time consuming and expensive, they will be able to use a quantum computer to simulate the molecules in a drug to predict behaviours and chemical interactions. It takes around $1bn to bring a new drug to market (biopharmadive, 2020), and many years of research, tests, and clinical trials. Quantum computing could offer a short-cut to discovering new medicines. As we reflect on the impact of COVID-19, the benefits of this technology are clear to see.
The UK government has ambitious aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Sales of new petrol and diesel cars will end in the UK in 2030, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and shifting the focus to electric mobility. Lithium-ion batteries are currently the dominant battery technology used in electric cars, phones and laptops. But, to replace fossil fuels, battery technology still needs to mature so that batteries become safer, more sustainable, charge faster, store more energy and have longer lifetimes.
Current research methods for battery material screening are costly and unreliable. Researchers rely on a ‘trial and error’ approach. In a similar way to drug development, quantum computers can be used to create a ‘virtual lab’ environment that enables a much faster, less expensive, and more robust way to screen battery materials. This sustainable method will allow for improved research and development towards a cleaner future.
It is predicted that the world’s population will increase from 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050. We need to safeguard our future by ensuring there will be enough resources to sustain such a vast number of people.
Ammonia is a vital chemical, used as a fertiliser and in other industrial applications. In industry, it is produced via the Haber-Bosch process, which converts nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, using an iron-based catalyst. The process was invented over a hundred years ago and is said to be responsible for feeding up to a third of the world’s population. It is however, not without its disadvantages: the process is reliant on high fossil fuel energy inputs, and has negative environmental effects on the soil.
By contrast, plants can naturally synthetise ammonia through a non-energy-intensive process. Despite its importance, this chemical process is still poorly understood. Quantum computers could be used to enable a deeper understanding of how ammonia is naturally produced in plants. If this process can be simulated it would enable a safer and more sustainable way to fertilise crops. As physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman famously said back in 1981:
“Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly it’s a wonderful problem, because it doesn’t look so easy.” (Richard Feynman, 1981)
Other possible applications
We have described three major ways in which quantum computing can have world changing impacts. There are many other possible applications for the technology, including developing new materials, logistics, weather prediction, cybersecurity, and finance.
Towards a quantum future
Riverlane is developing an advisory tool that calculates the quantum resources required to solve a given problem, such as molecular chemistry. The tool will incorporate the latest developments in quantum algorithms and search combinations of methods to find the best solution. This tool can be used by scientists working in pharmaceutical and chemical companies as a costing device ahead of starting their research projects.
When can we expect to witness the impact of quantum computing?
None of the problems outlined in this blogpost will be solved easily. But, developments are happening at pace. Quantum computing is a high-risk industry that has the potential to lead to huge rewards. Scalability is the key challenge and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when these applications will become a reality. However, the huge amount of private and government investment into quantum computing suggests that it’s not a question of if, but when, with some estimating that we could reach quantum advantage in just five years.
The field of quantum computing has some of the brightest brains working to unlock its potential. A collaboration of physicists, chemists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and experts in both hardware and software is required to overcome the challenges and drive quantum technology forward. If the flourishing quantum ecosystem continues to grow at pace, then perhaps the revolution might happen sooner than we think.
Next time…. There are now dozens of quantum computing start-ups, working on a multitude of projects. We’ll be exploring some of the different ways in which companies are aiming to commercialise quantum computing, by making sense of the quantum computing ecosystem.