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If countries are serious about climate change, they should get serious about quantum computing

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By Sam Howell

· 5 min read

The COP28 Conference in Dubai unveiled several declarations that underscore the disastrous consequences of climate change and galvanize global initiatives to keep a resilient future within reach. Though laudable, these declarations are ultimately futile if countries fail to successfully implement them. If countries are serious about meeting their climate commitments, they should get serious about quantum computing, a potentially game-changing technology that could support implementation and drive breakthrough climate innovations.   

COP28 participants aimed to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by 2050. Green energy technologies — such as electric vehiclescarbon capture and storage, and climate resilient agriculture — are key to helping countries remain on target and cut net emissions in half by 2030.  

The problem is that many green energy technologies are too costly and cumbersome to be useful. Further, existing approaches to scientific research and discovery could take years or decades to produce needed improvements, and the world cannot afford to wait. Rising temperatures already cause environmental degradation, weather extremes, food and water insecurity and conflict. Thankfully, quantum computing can help.  

Quantum computing uses the laws of quantum physics to store and process information, and rapidly solve complex problems. Quantum computers available today require additional maturation to deliver on their full potential, they are still error-prone and small in scale. But even in their current, limited state of development, quantum computers demonstrate significant computational advantages over conventional computers. They could solve problems in minutes that would take today’s best-performing conventional computers millions of years to crack.  

Quantum computers are particularly good at solving the optimization and simulation problems underpinning many sustainability and energy-related challenges and could overcome barriers to green technology innovation much faster than their conventional counterparts. Quantum computing, though an imperfect technology itself, could expedite critical breakthroughs and help achieve global climate objectives within desired timeframes.                                                                          

Quantum computers could, for example, accelerate improvements in electric batteries, which are pivotal to the renewable energy transition. While conventional computers struggle to model chemical processes and illuminate molecular interactions, quantum computers can provide exact simulations of quantum-mechanical phenomena, paving the way to better battery efficiency and performance. Quantum computers could help identify battery materials that are cheaper and more sustainable to source and produce, while also reducing the number of lab prototypes that require extensive testing. They could also help improve the energy density of batteries, allowing for increased range and greater flexibility.  

Several automotive manufacturers are already exploring the use of quantum computers to augment battery research and design. In January 2022, Hyundai partnered with quantum computing startup IonQ to develop new quantum algorithms for studying lithium compounds and their chemical reactions involved in battery chemistry. Likewise, Daimler partnered with IBM to use quantum simulation to better understand lithium-sulfur batteries and explore how to boost batteries’ charge capacity, diminish energy loss via heat, and lower production costs.  

Separately, companies like BMW are investigating the use of quantum computers to identify optimal locations to install electric vehicle (“EV”) charging stations. Recent research suggests that quantum technology could even deliver new mechanisms to charge EV batteries at a faster rate. By leveraging the quantum phenomenon of entanglement, quantum charging stations could replenish all cells within a battery simultaneously, minimizing EVs’ average charging time from 10 hours to approximately three minutes. Some researchers believe that such technology could be commercially available in as little as three to five years. 

Aside from supporting battery research and development, quantum computing can unlock more eco-friendly fertilizer manufacturing processes and facilitate more affordable green ammonia. Quantum computers could help overcome the challenges associated with replicating nitrogen fixation artificially, for instance. Quantum simulation could illuminate ways to enhance enzyme stability and oxygen sensitivity and improve the rate of ammonia production by nitrogenase. These advances would result in a 67 percent cost reduction over green ammonia produced through today’s methods and dramatically lessen the CO2 impacts of ammonia production for use in agriculture and shipping.  

Other possible sustainability applications for quantum computing include identifying better materials for solar cells and wind turbines, or more absorbent catalysts for carbon capture technologies. Quantum computers could help solve grid optimization problems as well, leading to significant power and energy savings, or contribute to more accurate and timely weather forecasting, enabling proactive and effective climate adaptation strategies. Quantum simulations could also support earth system modeling or nuclear fusion research and development efforts. 

In short, quantum technology is an often-overlooked tool that could unlock the potential of green technologies far faster than traditional approaches. Though quantum computers themselves must reach a higher level of performance to deliver on their full promise, today’s flawed quantum systems have an important role to play in meeting the world’s climate objectives.

As COP29 participants worked to bring new urgency and ambition to the global fight against climate change, they should also support efforts to advance cooperation on quantum research and development. Quantum computing is not a silver bullet to the world’s energy and sustainability challenges, but it could become a transformative tool that helps prevent the worst effects of climate change and reduce further global warming.  

COP28 presented an excellent opportunity to encourage engagement between experts in the quantum and sustainability domains, harness the positive potential of quantum computers, and think creatively about technology’s role in solving collective problems. It is time for COP participants to seize the quantum moment.

This article is also published on The Hill. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Sam Howell is a Research Associate with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She focuses on quantum computing, semiconductors, technology workforce issues, and the use of emerging technologies to enhance human performance.

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