Editorial Feature

Quantum Computing's Role in Advancing Climate Change Research

The impactful discoveries required to address the climate crisis could be fueled by advancements in quantum computing.

Quantum Computing and climate change, quantum climate change

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Quantum computers are predicted to cause significant disruption and provide substantial value across a wide range of sectors once they are ready for commercial deployment. Because of its exceptional capacity to replicate the chemistry underlying all human endeavors, quantum computing holds the promise of facilitating ground-breaking discoveries in the areas of carbon capture, new fuels, batteries, fertilizers, catalysts, and more.

Numerous low-carbon technologies entail intricate systems, especially those related to chemistry and materials science, which are not very well understood. There is an urgency to develop a new catalyst or electrolyte that will enable the production of more affordable carbon capture or more advanced electric batteries. Thousands of chemical combinations must currently be tested, requiring drawn-out and extremely expensive trial-and-error lab studies that frequently yield disappointing, negligible gains.

Robust supercomputers can never handle the complexity involved when it comes to materials and chemistry because they operate on an approximation basis. That is precisely the point at which quantum computing will become so important: in overcoming these technological and scientific obstacles.

Quantum Computing

Bits, which can be either a 0 or a 1, are the fundamental unit of data in traditional computers, which are based on classical physics. On the other hand, quantum bits, or qubits, are used in quantum computing. These bits have a property known as superposition that allows them to represent and store data in both 0 and 1 states simultaneously.

Quantum computers utilize not just superposition but also entanglement, a further phenomenon of quantum mechanics in which the states of two qubits, despite their physical separation, carry identical information. This makes it possible to create intricate quantum states that have simultaneous processing and representation capacities for massive volumes of data.

Examples Where Quantum Computing Can Make a Difference

Battery design is a prime example where quantum computing can make a difference. Although the electrochemistry of lithium-ion batteries is still mostly unknown, they are now widely used, and improving battery technology will be crucial to achieving net zero. For example, issues with energy density, safety, charge time, and utilization of rare minerals, can be significantly solved by replicating electrolyte molecules more correctly.

Battery prices may drop quickly due to significant efficiency advances and newly developed materials with sufficient supply, hastening the switch to electric vehicles. This includes the more demanding trucking industry, where cost parity could be reached several years sooner.

Ammonia presents another intriguing example to analyze current practices in chemical production. Ammonia is the building block of fertilizer used to grow the food that is consumed by the world's population. It is a molecule made up of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms.

Today, the century-old industrial Haber-Bosch process is used to make ammonia from nitrogen from the air and hydrogen from natural gas. This process generates around 2 percent of the world's CO2 emissions. This process can be made less carbon-intensive by, for instance, switching to green hydrogen as a fuel or utilizing carbon capture.

However, neither of those strategies solves the significant energy needed for high temperature and pressure for this industrial process, and both increase costs, postponing their usage on a significant scale. However, it is well understood that this process happens naturally far more effectively. At normal temperatures and pressures, microbes produce ammonia by pulling hydrogen from water and utilizing a complicated chemical called an enzyme, which is essentially a biological catalyst—a molecule that facilitates or accelerates chemical reactions without really being a part of the reaction.

Although it is well established that an artificial catalyst should be able to mimic this enzyme's activity, standard computers are unable to reproduce the stability of enzymes that are produced naturally. If this were possible, it would allow the production of ammonia at a temperature of about 30 degrees instead of 400 degrees, and to use water as a hydrogen source rather than natural gas.

Improved density batteries, especially for grid storage and transportation, perovskites for more efficient solar conversion, new technology for carbon capture and for direct-air capture by adsorbents, membrane optimization, catalysts and in hydrogen production, and new methods of producing clean ammonia are the top use cases for adopting quantum computing.

These key use cases have the potential to have a significant decarbonization impact and aid in returning the earth to a 1.5°C trajectory.

Future Outlook

The application of quantum computing to sustainability and environmental issues has enormous promise. Interdisciplinary partnerships between specialists in the quantum domain and other scientific fields are essential to maximizing this potential and developing significant answers.

Prioritizing climate-related issues in the development of new quantum algorithms will guarantee that quantum computing will benefit the environment from the start. It is crucial to consider climate-relevant applications when creating smaller-scale hardware and software co-design solutions for near-term implementation, as some of the known use cases of quantum computing necessitate large-scale fault-tolerant devices. Broad collaboration between key players can harness quantum computing to its full potential in order to significantly address climate change and build a more sustainable future.

More from AZoQuantum: Harnessing Quantum Computing for Breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence

References and Further Reading

Vera von Burg, Guang Hao Low, Thomas Häner, Damian S. Steiger, Markus Reiher, Martin Roetteler, and Matthias Troyer. Quantum computing enhanced computational catalysis. Phys. Rev. Research 3, 033055 – Published 16 July 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevResearch.3.033055

Hillenbrand, P. (27 May 2022) How quantum computing can help tackle global warming. [Online] McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/how-quantum-computing-can-help-tackle-global-warming

Rice, Julia E., Tanvi P. Gujarati, Mario Motta, Tyler Y Takeshita, Eunseok Lee, Joseph A. Latone and Jeannette M. García. “Quantum computation of dominant products in lithium-sulfur batteries.” The Journal of chemical physics 154 13 (2020): 134115. DOI:10.1063/5.0044068

Flower, A. (04 November 2021) How quantum computing can help tackle climate change. [Online] Riverlane. Available at: https://www.riverlane.com/blog/how-quantum-computing-can-help-tackle-climate-chang

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Written by

Ilamaran Sivarajah

Ilamaran Sivarajah is an experimental atomic/molecular/optical physicist by training who works at the interface of quantum technology and business development.

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