By Will Simpson
Fifteen years ago, former Vice President Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, a climate change documentary that had a tremendous impact on millions worldwide. In the film, he talks about how space travel inspired modern environmentalism, as images of Earth from space brought into focus just how the fates of every being on our planet are intrinsically tied to one another. As the reality of quantum computing applications become increasingly technologically viable, and the types of problems that can be addressed through quantum calculations expand, what impact will that expansion have in terms of addressing the climate crisis? The significant progress of quantum computing in the fields of chemistry, logistics, and physics has been steadily increasing over the past few years, with multiple promising applications in the fields of materials science, pharmaceuticals, logistics, and other industries that can benefit from the kinds of combinatorial optimizations that qubits can provide.
As the use of quantum in these fields continues to scale up, it is clear that there will be many ways that quantum computing can have a positive impact on the environment and the efforts to mitigate and diminish the effects of climate change on our planet. Developments in quantum chemistry will likely lead to advances in industries such as the production of ammonia based fertilizers and speed the evolution of more efficient and stable batteries for vehicular and utility usage. Similarly, the use of quantum computing for both computational chemistry and physics may make efficacious CO2 capture a reality, as well as helping develop better computational fluid dynamic (CFD) simulations that will create more efficient and aerodynamic vehicles. The ability of quantum systems to more accurately simulate the quantum mechanics that govern these chemical and physical interactions provides a true advantage, and even when applied to multi variable operations like fleet logistics and traffic automation this technology holds the potential to create vast new efficiencies that can lessen our impact on the planet.
Greenhouse gas emissions have been well known as a factor in climate change for a very long time, and reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere is one of the most pressing issues of our time. For decades, it has been the dream of atmospheric scientists, physicists, and chemists to devise a way to capture carbon directly at the source or be able to extract carbon from the atmosphere. This kind of technology is called Carbon Capture, and the potential impact of this would be immediate and vast, reducing our emissions virtually overnight by capturing the pollutants that are warming our planet before they are able to cause any damage as well as taking billions tons of carbon that is currently latent within our atmosphere.
As in a number of areas, part of the early promise of the application of quantum computing is the ability of quantum computers to better simulate chemical reactions that are defined by the laws of quantum mechanics. During the Near Intermediate Scale Quantum environment that we seem to be on the cusp of, we can expect quantum computers to be able to model interactions of between 50 and 150 atoms, far outstripping the capabilities of modern supercomputers. Major companies are seeking to take advantage of this ability, with ExxonMobil joining IBM’s Q Network, using quantum simulations to further their carbon sequestration research, and Microsoft setting a goal of using their quantum computers to work on taking carbon directly from the air, a process called Direct Air Capture or DAC. In Europe, energy provider Total is working with the scientists at Cambridge Quantum Computing with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality in their energy production by 2050. They are using quantum simulations to study the size, shape, and chemical properties of Adsorbents, nanoporous materials that could be utilized for DAC of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
One area of particular promise in terms of the impact of quantum computing on climate change in the Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum (NISQ) period that experts expect we are on the verge of, is the essential process of nitrogen fixation for the creation of fertilizer. Plants are able to convert nitrogen rich air into nitrates that they use to grow, and they do this through a molecule in their root systems called nitrogenase that is able to acquire nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. The Haber-Bosch method of chemical nitrogen fixation was developed over 100 years ago to produce ammonia for fertilizer, and this breakthrough allowed humankind to feed a population that nearly quadrupled over the same time period. In order to complete the same nitrogen fixation process that plants are able to do at room temperature and a very low energy cost, the Haber-Bosch method is extremely heat and pressure intensive, annually accounting for over 3% of all energy use worldwide. Our calculation is that this 3% of energy use requires about $11 billion worth of natural gas.
Current classical supercomputers are unable to analyze the extremely complex nitrogenase molecule, but quantum simulations of the binding pocket that the molecule uses to connect to the plant protein may lead to a new method of nitrogen fixation that could be accomplished at room temperature, in a standard pressure environment. This would lead to an appreciable drop in worldwide emissions, as well as having the potential to help alleviate world hunger. Cheaper and less energy costly fertilizers would make affordable food available to many communities that currently struggle with food insecurity, malnutrition, and poverty, creating a twofold positive effect of quantum computing in the process of nitrogen fixation.
It is widely accepted amongst automobile and motor vehicle analysts that Electric Vehicles (EVs) are the transportation of the future. Their efficiency makes them a much better option in terms of greenhouse emissions, and as battery technology continues to develop there have been major increases in vehicle range as well as decreases in the amount of time it takes to recharge the batteries that power the engine. However, there is a darker environmental side to these batteries, as they contain heavy metals and other compounds that create a massive e-waste problem when the batteries are no longer operable and must be disposed of. These batteries are many times larger than the traditional car battery, and will continue to pose a growing problem as the International Energy Agency predicts an 800% growth in electric vehicles over the next decade.
Quantum computing may offer an elegant solution to this problem in a technology that scientists have long sought, a solid state electric battery. Current lithium ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte solution, but a battery with a solid core would create a battery that is able to recharge in minutes and would be able to retain much more of its capacity even after hundreds of charging cycles. These batteries would also offer significant increases in vehicle range, as they can deliver double the volumetric energy of top-shelf commercial lithium ion batteries. Advances in quantum chemistry have opened the door to this technology, and companies like QuantumScape and Solid Power have stepped through, creating prototype solid state batteries that they hope to be able to stack into fuel cells that can be used to eventually power the EVs of the future. They are doing this by using quantum simulation to study the mechanical and chemical behavior of lithium metal and sulfides, materials that can be used to create the electrolytes used to store energy in these batteries. Their progress has been noted by the automobile industry, with manufacturers including Ford, BMW, and Hyundai partnering with Solid Power to research battery technology for their vehicles.
Aerodynamics and Vehicle Design
While the use of Quantum Computers in the field of chemistry has shown significant promise, another scientific area where we can expect to see significant advancement in the NISQ era will be computational physics. This will be especially impactful in the area of transportation, as quantum computing will allow researchers greater insights into the aerodynamics of vehicles like cars and planes by deepening their understanding on Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) in ways that classical computers cannot achieve. Quantum simulation for physics, similarly to chemistry, holds great promise as it becomes less error prone in that it can mimic the relationships between objects by taking into account far more variables than are available in classical physics simulation currently.
In this field, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and American quantum software company Zapata Computing have entered into a partnership to examine how quantum analysis of CFD can lead to more efficient airplanes and automobiles, which account for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. As scientists are able to utilize quantum to examine the complex interactions between our modes of transport and the atmosphere, it may lead to leaps in design for vehicles that could bring the emissions level down even further as we move towards a greater share of electric vehicles with longer ranges and more efficient operations.
Traffic and Logistics
It will not only be the types of cars that we drive that will be affected by the advent of Noisy Intermediate Stage Quantum, it will also be the way that they interact on roads and the types of directions they receive. Many of us have the experience of being in traffic that seems to have no real cause or impetus, and the inefficiencies and frustration that can create. While mobile apps that can help us navigate traffic are certainly the norm, they are limited in the complexity of algorithms they can run, and the numbers of variables that they can take into account at any one given time.
In 2017, VW and D-Wave partnered for the annual Web Summit in Portugal, an event that typically creates an extreme traffic event in Lisbon when attendees depart each day. Using D-Wave’s quantum computers, they were able to create an app that attendees could use to significantly reduce their departure from the event each day by taking a wider variety of factors into account than classical computing has been able to accomplish. This technology was based on a study of congestion in Beijing, wherein scientists at D-Wave were able to use quantum algorithms to help 418 vehicles reach their destination while experiencing almost no congestion. In an interview with Automotive News Europe, former D-Wave CEO Bo Ewald explained, “A D-Wave quantum computer doesn’t add, it doesn’t subtract, it doesn’t do things you are used to. It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about computers.”
This is where Quantum Advantage really takes its hold in the world of traffic and logistics, since quantum computers are able to accomplish extremely complex multi-variable analysis in a fraction of the time that it takes traditional computers to accomplish. In a study published in the journal Nature, Japanese scientists Diasuke Inoue and his associates were able to minimize the imbalance of traffic flows using quantum annealing to globally control traffic signals across a lattice of complex roads, creating better outcomes for all vehicles that were on those streets at any given time. The ability of quantum computers to factor many more variables than even the most complex supercomputers will lead to better fuel usage, traffic conditions, and efficiency standards for vehicle fleets and daily commuters.
Energy Efficient High Performance Computing
Although the common rationale for using quantum computing is that it will either provide answers to computing problems which are either completely intractable or provide solutions that in a manner that is either much faster or more accurate. One thing that isn’t noticed as often is that quantum computers use much less power than the typical supercomputer. Very large data centers may contain tens of thousands of computers, associated cooling and other equipment and may require as much as 100 megawatts (MW) of power, enough for powering around 80,000 U.S. households. On the other hand, a typical superconducting quantum computer may require something on the order of 25 kilowatts (KW) with most of the power used for the dilution refrigerator. So even if a problem is solvable on either a large supercomputer installation or a quantum computer, the quantum computer may still be a better choice due to the power savings.
There is no doubt that quantum computing is going to have a great impact on a variety of fields in the coming decades, and we can hope that this leads to progress on the area of climate change. We have begun to see the effects of climate change around the world, from rising ocean tides to more volatile weather patterns, and it is important that the scientific community apply all methodologies at their disposal to study and address this issue. The conclusion of the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth was that in order to stem the effects of our impact on the climate, we would not make one major change, but rather a series of small changes that would have a large overall effect in concert. The effects of quantum on climate change will likely follow a similar blueprint, with the advances in our understanding of areas like chemistry and physics brought about by more reliable and less noisy quantum computers having an impact in a wide variety of areas that will have a profound impact on our energy usage and carbon emissions in the future. There may come a day when you will drive your more efficient electric vehicle thousands of miles on a single charge, through productive farmland that is fed with a much more energy efficient fertilizer, with a battery that will never need to be replaced, charging using electricity from power plants with far less emissions, and never run into traffic or congestion. If that day comes, you will likely have the advances in quantum computing that will occur in the next decade to thank for your greater quality of life, and for the fact that generations to come will have the same opportunity to enjoy this verdant, beautiful, and nurturing planet that we call home.
June 22, 2021