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As we are running down the clock on fighting the onset of climate change, industry heavyweights such as Bill Gates are increasingly betting on technology to get us out of the climate dilemma. The latest buzz is around quantum computing with much of the excitement stemming from the way data is processed and the exponential scale at which computational power is facilitated.
Classical computers perform operations using “qubits,” which can only store data either as zero or as one. Quantum computers rely on strange properties of quantum physics and allow for a particle to exist in multiple states at once. This means that a process of modelling something as complex as molecules – which traditionally may take 50,000 years – can now be analysed in less than one day. Consider this: Imagine laying a deck of 52 playing cards side by side all facing down in front of you and wanting to find the ace of hearts with as few draws as possible. To find it, a human would start turning over cards one by one. A computer would take the same approach faster. A quantum computer would always find the ace of hearts on the very first try – every single time.
Chemistry is one field which will be dramatically disrupted by the developments of quantum computers by enabling the advanced simulation of molecules and reactions. The technology allows us to flawlessly model complex molecular systems at a fraction of the cost and time, leading to the development of new materials for higher efficiency batteries or energy-efficient fertilizers. Finding such new technologies is an expensive and daunting task without the ability to simulate the properties of candidate molecules a priori. The industry has picked up on the transformative power of quantum computers with companies such as BASF, Microsoft and IBM putting up considerable funding to replicate complex systems such as photosynthesis and fertilizer production and betting on a collapsing cost curves as a consequence.
Once applied to low-emission technologies, quantum computing could contribute to solutions that change how we travel, farm and reduce pollution, all with an adoption at scale estimated in five to ten years. Simply put: the environmental and financial gains could be immense. According to research by NASDAQ the productivity gains by end users of quantum computing, in the form of both cost savings and revenue opportunities, are expected to surpass $450 billion annually.
Global industrial production of nitrogen fertilizers alone emits more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the United Kingdom in a single year; whilst existing industrial catalyst production remains responsible for 2 % of global annual GHG emissions at a hefty price tag of 300 billion US-$ a year.
As the pace of change needs to pick up, for some it may feel as if we are building the plane as we fly it. Though, to turn ambition into action we will need to use all the lifejackets at our disposal to ensure a safe climate emergency landing.