From faster and better drug design to solving the traveling salesman problem at the scale of global supply chains, quantum computers raises hopes that today’s most complex problems, most of which cannot be solved with existing technologies, can one day be cracked – in minutes.
It therefore seems logical that experts in the field are increasingly turning their attention to whether quantum computers can provide solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time: climate change.
Unlike the classical computers with which we are most familiar, quantum computers are built to take advantage of the strange laws of quantum physics. Engineers are still figuring out how to do this on a large scale, meaning quantum computers are of limited use for now; but it is expected that when a full-fledged device is built, it will come with exponential computing power and will be able to solve problems quickly that would otherwise require impossible amounts of time and computing resources, even for the most powerful supercomputers.
As noted by Q4Climate, an organization that gathers experts at the intersection of quantum research and climate science, the research field is focused on discovering how quantum computers can help combat climate change. is currently almost non-existent.
But things are slowly changing. For example, leading quantum software company Zapata Computing found that the technology could have an impact on several goals set by the United Nations for sustainable developmentranging from clean water and sanitation to affordable and clean energy.
Q4Climate has also put together a report that discusses some areas where quantum computers can make a big difference.
There is a warning. Quantum computing is a nascent technology — one that hasn’t even made a useful computation yet — and as such, any assessment of its future capabilities needs to be put into perspective.
“Q4Climate is not saying that quantum computing will solve the problem of climate change,” Alexandre Blais, who sits on Q4Climate’s advisory board, told ZDNet. “All we’re saying is that as scientists we need to pay attention and see if we can help. At this stage, we’re just pointing out interesting areas of research and hope that experts in these areas take up the challenge.”
Take quantum simulation, which consists of predicting the behavior of a system made up of molecules – an especially difficult problem for a classical computer to solve, because of the many factors that can influence the way molecules can interact with each other.
Many companies are investigating how quantum computing can improve the simulation of new drugs or from next-generation materials. But quantum simulation can also help make more efficient batteries, better materials for solar cells or wind turbines, or even more absorbent catalysts for carbon capture technologies.
In agriculture, quantum simulation could drastically reduce the power required to produce fertilizers, which represent up to 2% of global energy.
“Performing quantum chemistry on a quantum computer remains a challenge, but it has been studied thoroughly and we know there are accelerations that we can expect once we have a quantum computer,” says Blais. “We can expect a quantum computer to find new ways to make fertilizers. Imagine if we could reduce energy consumption by even a fraction of a percent, that would be a huge gain on a global scale.”
Quantum computers are also expected to excel at difficult optimization tasks, which Q4Climate has also identified as an area of interest. For example, grid optimization issues can lead to power and energy savings, while better traffic flow management can reduce CO2 emissions.
The technology could also optimize the design of carbon-intensive materials. For example, according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), lighter, stronger and better insulating materials that require less carbon to produce can reduce emissions from buildings, transportation or the production of metals such as cement.
Quantum computers could therefore be an important tool in designing solutions for climate change, but they could also be beneficial to the environment, regardless of those promising applications.
Whether used for climate-related calculations or not, the technology is expected to generate phenomenal gains in computational speed, meaning fewer resources are needed to run even the most complex programs.
The workloads currently running on classic computers are notoriously energy-intensive and are only expected to consume more resources as they grow. “When it comes to AI, a training track can consume the carbon footprint of five cars over the entire lifecycle. That’s huge,” Tamar Eilam, an IBM fellow currently researching ways to reduce the impact of cloud computing, told ZDNet.
Research shows that the highest scoring deep learning models are also the most computationally intensive, because of their huge data usage. The life cycle of one algorithm was found to produce the equivalent of 284,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which is in fact nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car, including the manufacturing process.
Simply put, a quantum computer that performs calculations faster could lower those numbers. “Because it will take much less time to do the calculation, it will also be much more efficient in terms of energy,” Eilam says. “For a given calculation, if you can solve it faster with a quantum computer, it goes into the equation to calculate how much energy you’re using.”
Of course, the equation comes together with many other factors: Quantum computers like those developed by Google and IBM, known as superconducting quantum computers, have strict cooling requirements and must be kept at temperatures colder than space.
But early research in this space seems to indicate that the total energy consumption of quantum computers will be lower than that of classical devices. D-Wave’s 2000Q quantum annealer, for example, was was found to consume four orders of magnitude less power then IBM’s Summit supercomputer, one of the most powerful classical devices in the world.
Similarly, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have calculated that quantum computers: the potential to reduce energy consumption by more than a million kilowatt hours.
A lot of research still needs to be done before those numbers can be confirmed by using the technology in practice. As quantum computers get bigger, more parameters will come into play in determining the devices’ carbon footprint, ranging from water consumption to the use of renewable materials in chip manufacturing.
But even as a scientist coming from outside the quantum computer, Eilam has high hopes for the potential of quantum computers to reduce the environmental impact of the digital world.
“I’m not an expert on quantum computing, but I am on sustainability, and quantum computing is really a solution we’re investigating,” Eilam says. “We shouldn’t be betting on one technology, but we definitely need to look at multiple different avenues and take risks in exploring those avenues.”
In this case, the biggest risk comes from the timeline: it could be a decade before quantum computing starts to deliver on its promises, if at all. Given the urgency of the climate challenge, this seems too long.
Quantum scientists are aware of this, and few will defend the idea that quantum computing is the ultimate solution to climate change. Instead, the technology is seen as a potential tool to support long-term environmental efforts.
“Climate change is unfortunately a long-term problem,” Blais says. “If we take action now, we will still have to pay attention to this issue in 10, 20, 40 years. Those are the timeframes we look at.”
The immediate focus, therefore, is on ramping up efforts to build large-scale quantum computers that can run useful algorithms — a goal in which governments and businesses are investing heavily and where there is no lack of activity.
However, the next stage, and possibly the more difficult one, will be to incentivize quantum research groups to apply their efforts to climate-focused use cases for quantum computers. The potential exists and the results could be groundbreaking. However, it is easier said than done to realize them.