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When Google researchers claimed their quantum computer chip (Sycamore) had achieved “quantum supremacy” in October 2019, numerous diverse industries took notice. This is because quantum computers will enable a revolutionary step-change in computing power when quantum supremacy – or the state in which a quantum computer can perform any task better than a classical computer could – is achieved.
Google’s announcement (which was rescinded) is not yet the start of the next information revolution, but it brings computing closer to this much-anticipated breakthrough. When quantum supremacy is achieved, the mining industry will benefit dramatically.
Quantum computers link up multiple qubits in a device that takes advantage of the peculiar physical relations observable at the quantum (smallest possible) scale. Being quantum, qubits exhibit traits like quantum entanglement (if you spin one entangled particle, another entangled particle unconnected to the first will spin as well); quantum superposition (a qubit can be both a zero and a one at the same time); and quantum tunneling (particles can pass through physical barriers).
This means that computer architects can design systems that can: solve multiple problems in parallel (this would make quantum computers exponentially faster than classical computers); process unique quantum algorithms like Shor’s (to factorize large prime integers and break current encryption in milliseconds); use Grover’s algorithm (to search enormous databases that would break even a classical supercomputer), or perform quantum annealing (which enables optimization that can solve classic mathematical problems like the traveling salesman problem).
All of this means that quantum computers, once practical, will have applications in the mining industry similar in type to the applications of computers – but much more dramatic.
Modeling and Optimization
The key to successful mine planning is modeling the geological conditions under the earth’s surface to ensure mines effectively extract materials. Currently, this is supported by satellite-imagery, ground testing, and various techniques of geology. The data that is gathered is used in conjunction with computer models to find the best sites to mine.
Quantum computers could manage this task much better than classical computers can. This is because they would be able to take in far richer and greater data from a wider range of sources, and search and apply that data effectively. Quantum computers could scrape satellite imagery and on-the-ground data to produce a more accurate composite model of the earth than is possible today.
Such a model would be too vast for a classical computer to efficiently find optimal sites in. Here, quantum computers with their advanced optimization functionality would be useful to the mining industry. A quantum computer could quickly optimize the system to find the best sites to prioritize for effective mining.
The key to profitable mining endeavors is ensuring a robust logistics operation that minimizes wasted materials and equipment going into the site, reduces mine downtime, and ensures resources can flow from the mine to the consumer effectively. Quantum computing could revolutionize this process.
As more and more items are becoming “smart” – connected to the internet or other digital networks with embedded microchips – a vast Internet of Things (IoT) is developing. Radiofrequency identification (RFID) and other technologies essential to logistics are also a part of this wider picture of every item in the mining operation (e.g. vehicles, drills, energy supply, workers).
This vast system could be effectively monitored by a quantum computer, which would keep track of every aspect of the mining operation to ensure maximum efficiency. Further, smarter devices connected to the quantum computer could become more and more autonomous, reducing the need for human labor in dangerous occupations.