Let’s Make Quantum Computing about Sustainability

Let’s Make Quantum Computing about Sustainability

New Decade, New Commitment

A new year brings new challenges and new commitments. A new decade, even more so. As world leaders gather in Davos for the 2020 World Economic Forum, one particular challenge is bound to be on everybody’s mind: climate change and the fight for a sustainable future. For many companies, states and the women and men running them, 2019 proved to be the year when they took the challenge of climate change seriously and made important commitments to a sustainable future over the next 10, 20 or 30 years. The upcoming decade is the time when those commitments must start bearing fruit and leaders must show that they’re indeed serious about a sustainable planet in 2050 or sooner.

In the world of quantum computing, 2019 turned out to also be a breakthrough year. Google’s quantum supremacy experiment showed a 30-year-old concept for performing computations with the help of atomic particles is indeed valid and is closer to a commercial future. Oftentimes compared to the first flight of the Wright brothers, Google’s experiment is a first step in proving commercial value in quantum computers. The 2020s are the decade where this value must be ultimately proved, and quantum hardware deployed to solve real commercial problems.

It is then reasonable to look at whether the challenges sustainability and quantum computing face in the 2020s are tied to each other. Given the promise, quantum computing holds in many areas such as chemistry, agriculture, logistics, engineering, it seems only natural to ask: if quantum computing’s goal for the 2020s is to bring world-changing applications, why not see those in the space of climate sustainability?

At Zapata Computing our challenge has always been to make quantum computing practical by offering ground-breaking algorithms that solve real-world problems. With the dawn of a new decade, we wanted to view that challenge in the light of a new commitment: dedicating our efforts in quantum computing to solving real-world problems that can impact the environment in a positive way and make our planet more sustainable.

Sustainable Commitments vs. Quantum Computing

As of January 2020, the majority of Fortune 500 companies have made a commitment to become more sustainable over the upcoming decades. For some, like Maersk, it is all about following the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. For others, like Microsoft, it is about reducing their carbon footprint and having a neutral impact on the climate.

Regardless of the type of commitment, dedication to a sustainable future can be seen across all industries: technology; oil & gas; transportation; aviation; pharmaceuticals; retail; finance or chemistry.

Those commitments are usually accompanied by a more or less ambitious timeline with the most common dates being 2030 (for immediate effects), 2040 (for deepened progress) and 2050 (for definite and permanent effects).

So how does quantum computing compare? Quantum computing’s progress will happen in 3 key phases:

  1. The first and current phase relies on so-called NISQ computing (Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum). Current machines are not free from errors, have fidelity issues and are curbed by hardware noise. This first generation of quantum computers requires therefore smart software and algorithms incorporating error mitigation techniques. Those will allow to solve the first practical problems and start tackling climate challenges.
  2. The second phase refers to a broader advantage that will come with machines that have already incorporated quantum error correction. Such hardware will allow us to solve more complex problems, solving practical issues across a variety of areas.
  3. Finally, the last phase will be that of Fault-tolerant quantum computing devices (FTQC). Perfectly functioning machines that will enable large scale calculations and even more complex problems to be solved. Unlocking the full potential of sustainability-friendly solutions being run on quantum computers.

One of the main criticisms of quantum computing is its long timeline for impact. Potential customers are often reluctant to make the necessary investment due to long waiting time (3-5 years) before quantum computing yields commercially applicable results.

But sustainability is not something where we expect results to happen overnight anyway. Rather it is a continuous effort that will happen over many years and decades. Hence, applying quantum computing is not a daunting prospect, but rather a welcome technology. If we have to wait 3, 5 or 10 years for the technology to come to fruition, but once it does we will be able to reduce our carbon footprint by a significant percentage – then our, every effort should be directed at making this happen.

The United Nations has outlined 17 different goals for sustainable development. Quantum computing is bound to have a direct impact on at least 5 of them:

  1. Zero Hunger (Goal 2) – new algorithms for nitrogen fixation
  2. Good Health and Well-Being (Goal 3) – faster and cheaper drug discovery
  3. Clean Water and Sanitation (Goal 6) – better water optimization and catalysts
  4. Affordable and Clean Energy (Goal 7) – new batteries
  5. Climate Action (Goal 13) – see below

And a look at some of the industries that have adopted sustainability strategies leaves no doubt that quantum computing and sustainability are bound to walk hand in hand. For example, some of the world’s largest Oil & Gas companies are looking at ways to mitigate their footprint by coming up with new methods of improving carbon capture. At the same time, these companies are one of the first to make bold bets on quantum computing – seeing how it can help them develop new molecules or optimize refineries to make them more energy-efficient.

Quantum Sustainable Impact

In some ways, Zapata’s past work has not been detached from the paradigm of a sustainable world. Over the past 2 years, we have developed many proprietary solutions for advanced engineering, chemistry, and agriculture as well as transportation. Some of those algorithms are directly or indirectly impacting climate sustainability.

One such impact comes in the field of advanced engineering for aviation by solving so-called Partial Differential Equations. Partial Differential Equations (or PDEs) represent a wide variety of phenomena in mechanical engineering, materials engineering, CFD, heat and mass transfer or modeling aerodynamic flows. Calculating PDEs is ubiquitous in many industries such as oil & gas, aerospace and automotive. As PDE calculations are a complex and resource-consuming task, companies are on the constant search of new approaches to make solving them more efficient. One of Zapata’s many proprietary solutions relies on combinatorial optimization to solve partial differential equations (PDEs). The solution offers a hybrid quantum-classical approach, allowing to speed up the solving of PDEs.

Solving PDEs more efficiently with quantum computing will unlock new wing and engine designs that make airplanes more energy efficient. Even the smallest percentage of improvements in that area would prevent millions of tons of CO2 from going into the atmosphere.

Another important area for quantum computing and sustainability action in agriculture – and more specifically the production of fertilizer. Every year 120m metric tons of fertilizers are used around the world – helping to feed our population. Whereas the purpose of fertilizer is fairly straightforward – fixing nitrogen from the air and introducing it to plants – its manufacturing is not. Current fertilizers rely on the so-called Haber-Bosch process. The method fixates nitrogen (N2) from the atmosphere through a chemical reaction with hydrogen (H2). Performing such a synthesis requires however high temperatures (400-500°C) and high pressure (200-400 atmospheres). This means that fertilizer manufacturing is ultimately an energy-costly process of consuming approx. 1-2% of global energy.

At the same time, many bacteria found in nature perform the same chemical reaction as the Haber-Bosch method does – allowing the fixation of nitrogen from the air to take place. Understanding those bacteria would allow us to develop new types of fertilizers. However, understanding how bacteria perform nitrogen fixation is a highly complicated task. It requires, among others, complex simulations of enzymes and proteins forming such bacteria that are hard to perform on classical computers.

Quantum computers have a natural ability to simulate chemical reactions, enzymes, and proteins. Research has shown that a computer with a 100 logical qubits would be able to perform the necessary simulation of nitrogenase proteins contained in cyanobacteria. Current research – lead by several international companies – aims to improve such simulations, lower the number of necessary qubits and boost them further by combining Machine Learning and quantum computing.

Pushing forward the boundaries of current algorithms holds the potential to unlock new and simpler ways to perform nitrogen fixation, at a lower environmental cost.

Committing to a Quantum Sustainable Future

And so, we would like to encourage all companies to seek to improve their impact on sustainability to look at quantum computing as one of those technologies that can have a significant positive effect on the environment.

As for us, we are actively pursuing a quantum computing agenda based around sustainability. This includes several actions:

  • A sustainability impact analysis is part of every customer project that we are performing from 2020 onwards
  • We are working closely with our partners to prepare events showcasing the various sustainability impacts of quantum computing
  • Continuous development of novel quantum computing algorithms that can impact the environment

As we progress in this new decade let us be bold in stating that we want this decade to be a better future for our planet.

Witold W. Kowalczyk
Zapata Author

Witold W. Kowalczyk

Director, European Business Development