How Quantum Computing Can Help Address Sustainability Challenges

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3Q 2021 | IN-6249

Quantum computing has the strong potential to replace classical computing and provide solutions for climate sensitive industry changes.

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Why Quantum Computing?


Classical computing has remained the predominant method of solving computation problems such as integer factorization, graphic rendering, and database storage and retrieval. However, the processing speed of quantum computing and its energy consumption has led to a shift in narrative. The primary benefit of quantum computing over classical computing is the substantial increase in computational speed. Classical computers take too much time running thousands or even millions of scenarios in real-time to aid in decision making, even if multiple computer systems ran in parallel.

In December 2020, a team of researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei used beams of laser light to carry out calculations for a problem called “Gaussian boson sampling” — which entails calculating the probability distribution of many bosons whose quantum waves interfere with one another in a way that essentially randomizes the position of the particles. As a result, they could find solutions to the boson-sampling problem in 200 seconds, a task that would take an estimated 2.5 billion years to calculate on China’s TaihuLight supercomputer — a quantum advantage of around 100 trillion times.

Similarly, in 2019, Google’s Sycamore quantum computer, developed for its Beyond-Classical experiment, successfully made a calculation 1 billion times faster than the world’s most advanced classical supercomputer at that time, known as Summit. From an energy perspective, the quantum computer consumed about 25 KW of energy compared to 14,000 KW for the supercomputer. The internet giant plans to spend several billion dollars on building a commercial-grade quantum computer by 2029. In addition, IBM Research, another serious player in quantum computing, uses AI, quantum computing, and other advanced technologies to explore different battery alternatives that could lessen the impact of battery production on the environment.

A documentary called Quantum Technology: Our Sustainable Future, from The Quantum Daily, in partnership with Oxford Instruments Nanoscience, was released where industry experts were called on to leverage the power of quantum computing in addressing global sustainability issues. In the documentary, Google, IBM, and Intel, along with start-ups such as SeeQC and PsiQuantum, shared their insights on how quantum technologies could be used to tackle key sustainability issues:

  • Reducing energy use in data centers and server farms
  • Reducing the energy required for complex computations that result from the rise in AI, optimization, simulation, and others
  • Accelerate the development of sustainability applications such as carbon capture and battery development
  • Minimizing quantum computing’s potential environmental impact

Computing New Ways to Tackle Sustainability Issues


Currently, industrial processes rely heavily on energy-intensive procedures. One such example is using the Haber-Bosch Process to turn inert nitrogen gas into ammonia, which is subsequently used for fertilizer. Compared to nature’s use of nitrogenase enzyme in nitrogen fixation, the Haber-Bosch Process is an industrial procedure with extremely high levels of energy consumption that is detrimental to the environment. However, it also proves to be vital for food security as climate change impacts crop productions across the globe. The predictive capabilities of quantum computing may identify the most efficient synthetic copy of the nitrogenase enzyme’s active site, creating a synthetic copy of nature’s nitrogen fixation process and lowering environmental impacts compared to the current method.

Another key challenge that could be addressed with the help of quantum computing is clean energy. The transportation of energy is highly crucial as the world shifts towards renewable sources. Superconducting materials allow for the transfer of electricity without any energy loss, however, most only operate at -452°F. The act of cooling these materials has proven to be prohibitively energy-intensive. With the help of quantum computing, the correct combination of elements could be predicted to make superconducting materials operational at higher temperatures, easing the transport of electricity while also lowering energy consumption. On the solar front, there is still room for improvement in terms of energy conversion. Currently, the record for a solar cell’s energy conversion ratio is 47.1%. Quantum computing will potentially enable identifying vital elements that would enhance solar cell efficiency, further paving the way for renewable energy sources.

Sustainable Quantum Future


According to ABI Research’s Quantum Computing: Core Technologies, Development, and Use Cases report, it is forecasted that the quantum computing market size will grow to US$15.3 billion by 2028. However, despite the growing research and development in quantum computing, some headwinds need to be overcome. The main one is generating a more extended, more stable superposition state for valuable calculations. This involves eliminating as much “noise” from the environment to prevent quantum decoherence. Another challenge would be the potential energy consumption of quantum computers. Currently, most quantum computers must operate at temperatures near absolute zero to enable quantum processing to be superconducting. This requires the use of cryogenic refrigerators, which are immensely energy inefficient. Therefore, quantum computing companies need to scale to more extensive systems with better infrastructure. Higher quality qubits can then be achieved, resulting in higher coherence and fidelity with lower error rates. In addition, designing and developing a sustainable quantum computer with efficient cooling and lower cooling requirements will be critical towards a more sustainable future.