Editorial Feature

Quantum Technologies: Rethinking Climate Change Solutions

Without a doubt, climate change is the most critical and complicated challenge that human society faces. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), unprecedented shifts in the Earth's climate have been observed in every region and across the entire climate system. Although it is an emerging field, the intersection of quantum computing and climate science attracts significant attention from scientists as a cutting-edge approach for understanding global warming mechanisms and developing sustainable climate solutions. 

The first part of the United Nations IPCC report, entitled Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, provides new estimates about the prospects of crossing the global warming threshold of 1.5°C in the next few decades. The report states that unless there are immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting the global temperature rise close to 1.5°C will be beyond our reach.

The urgency of the climate change challenge calls for technological solutions that can either drastically improve the sustainability of current zero-emission technologies or develop new ones.

The Rise of Quantum Computers

Quantum technologies are already changing the way experts think about solving some of the most important scientific problems of our time. Utilizing quantum phenomena such as entanglement, superposition, and tunneling, arising from the fundamental properties of photons, electrons, and whole atoms, have the potential to solve problems that are far beyond the reach of today's conventional supercomputers. 

Unlike the traditional digital technology, which operates through sequential yes-no decisions, quantum computers can manipulate superpositions of multiple quantum states simultaneously in their logical elements, called qubits. 

Importantly, in quantum information processing, multiple qubits can share their states through a non-classical interaction called entanglement. This enables the qubits to sample a much broader data space than the same number of bits. As more qubits get entangled together, the computing power grows exponentially, thus enabling more efficient and scalable parallel computation for different applications. 

Currently, traditional computers can handle any task that a quantum computer can solve. As companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft, Rigetti, D-Wave, and Zapata Computing continue to integrate more qubits and improve their error-correction algorithms, the technology might be on the verge of achieving quantum supremacy. This describes the ability of a quantum computer to outperform any classical computer on a feasible timescale.

Image Credit: Bartlomiej K. Wroblewski/Shutterstock.com

Modeling the Earth's Climate

While the full potential of quantum technology might still be decades away, recent developments indicate that even the early-generation quantum computers existing today could contribute substantially to some of the highest-impact technologies for combating global warming.

Accurate climate models have become essential to studying changes in the Earth's climate, including its future response to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Solving a full-scale climate model, encompassing all physical components of the climate system - the atmosphere, ocean, land, cryosphere, biosphere, and the interactions between them, would take thousands of years of simulation time even on the fastest conventional supercomputers existing today.

Using quantum-based artificial intelligence technology, IBM created the Environmental Intelligence Suite. This quantum simulator can predict, assess, and quantify the risks from extreme weather events, such as floods, drought, and heatwaves, and their impacts on supply chains and infrastructure. Models like this can then be integrated into enterprise management strategies for transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture.

Sustainability and Lower Emissions Through Quantum Computing

Many researchers understand that finding solutions to climate change, such as developing new sustainable materials or more efficient carbon capture methods, requires computationally intense simulations.  Here, quantum computing can reveal its potential; the time and memory necessary for accurate simulation increases exponentially with the modeled system.

AA group of scientists at Microsoft Research, led by Matthias Troyer, developed new quantum algorithms to simulate complex catalytic processes. The goal is to find efficient catalysts that can be used for carbon fixation, a process that converts CO2 into valuable chemicals, or to mimic bacterial atmospheric nitrogen fixation for sustainable production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

These developments can reduce global natural gas consumption by 3-5% and significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. Besides, the algorithms are 10,000 times faster than the existing computational methods and would allow quantum computers to fundamentally change computational chemistry and materials science.

What problems could quantum computers solve?

Video Credit: IBM Research/YouTube.com

Quantum Technology Helps Developing Next-Generation Batteries

In most respects, modern renewable energy is mature enough to compete with traditional fossil fuels, apart from battery technology. Batteries often lack the capacity and speed of charging to match the energy stored in oil or coal.

A quantum computing breakthrough allowed researchers at IBM and Daimler AG to model the dipole moment of three lithium-containing molecules, thus paving the way to the next-generation lithium-sulfur (Li-S) batteries as a more powerful, longer-lasting, and cheaper replacement to the widely-used lithium-ion batteries.

Keeping an Eye on the Environment

Quantum sensors can probe the environment in ways that classical sensors and detectors cannot. Quantum states like electron spin can be exploited to detect tiny variations in gravity and magnetism.

Researchers at Quantum Sensors and Metrology Hub, an interdisciplinary collaboration between academics and industry, based at the University of Birmingham, UK, are developing quantum sensors for monitoring CO2 capture and storage in underground cavities.

Such sensors allow remote investigation of how CO2 migrates towards natural geological formations' surfaces and validate the safety of different carbon capture and storage applications.

Future Optimization of Quantum Technology

Currently, state-of-the-art quantum computers can manipulate approximately 100 qubits, whereas to outperform classical computers in real-world applications, the quantum computers would need to operate with a million qubits. This presents a formidable technological challenge, as qubits need to maintain their quantum states for a long enough period (or coherence time) to complete a computational operation.

The more qubits are integrated into a system, the harder it becomes to maintain long enough coherence times. Nevertheless, given the enormous potential of quantum technology, significant research efforts have been invested in exploring possible applications of the technology that can mitigate climate change.


Industrial Response to Climate Change 

This article is a part of the IPCC Editorial Series: Industrial Response to Climate Change, a collection of content exploring how different sectors are responding to issues highlighted within the IPCC 2018 and 2021 reports. Here, Quantum showcases the research institutions, industrial organizations, and innovative technologies driving adaptive solutions to mitigate climate change. 

References and Further Reading

IPCC. (2018) Summary for Policymakers. Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_SPM_version_report_LR.pdf

IPCC. (2021) Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/

L. Oddersede (2021) Quantum technologies can transform innovation and mitigate climate change – here's how [Online] www.weforum.org Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/04/quantum-technologies-transform-innovation-and-mitigate-climate-change-gtgs 

L. Foster (2021) Could Quantum Computing hold the key to sustainability? [Online] www.techuk.org Available at: https://www.techuk.org/resource/could-quantum-computing-hold-the-key-to-sustainability.html 

Giani, A., Eldredge, Z. (2021) Quantum Computing Opportunities in Renewable Energy. SN Comput. Sci. 2, 393. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42979-021-00786-3

K. Moskvitch (2021) How AI and Quantum Could Help Fight Climate Change [Online] www.ibm-research.medium.com Available at: https://ibm-research.medium.com/earth-day-how-ai-and-quantum-could-help-fight-climate-change-4156fe6ee16d 

J. Garcia (2020) IBM and Daimler use quantum computer to develop next-gen batteries [Online] www.ibm.com Available at: https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2020/01/next-gen-lithium-sulfur-batteries 

Bobier, J.-F., et al. (2020) A Quantum Advantage in Fighting Climate Change [Online] www.bcg.com Available at: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/quantum-advantage-fighting-climate-change 

M. Troyer (2020) State-of-the-art algorithm accelerates path for quantum computers to address climate change [Online] www.microsoft.com Available at: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/blog/state-of-the-art-algorithm-accelerates-path-for-quantum-computers-to-address-climate-change 

J. O'Brien (2019) How quantum computing could beat climate change [Online] www.weforum.org Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/12/quantum-computing-applications-climate-change 

Reiher, M., et al. (2017) Elucidating reaction mechanisms on quantum computers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 114 (29) 7555-7560. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1619152114

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Cvetelin Vasilev

Written by

Cvetelin Vasilev

Cvetelin Vasilev has a degree and a doctorate in Physics and is pursuing a career as a biophysicist at the University of Sheffield. With more than 20 years of experience as a research scientist, he is an expert in the application of advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to better understand the organization of “soft” complex systems. Cvetelin has more than 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals (h-index of 17) in the field of polymer science, biophysics, nanofabrication and nanobiophotonics.


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