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Quantum computing alone cannot reach net zero or “solve” climate change. But if we work together, we can use this technology to enable breakthrough green innovations, writes Ashley Montanaro.
At COP28 in Dubai, world leaders will come together to address the climate crisis, including the role that technology and innovation will play.
If we want to achieve the ambition of net zero emissions by 2050, then we must bring in all the innovations and policy solutions we can.
The magnitude of this systemic challenge means that it cannot be solved with a single innovation; Given this, it’s natural to be very skeptical of any technological silver bullet that claims to be able to “solve” climate change.
It’s especially natural to be skeptical of a technology as trendy as quantum computing, with some saying it could one day “address the climate crisis,” “solve world hunger,” or maybe even “save the planet.”
But as a technology with enormous potential, it helps to understand exactly if, when and to what extent it will be able to contribute to solving the climate crisis.
One of the most important near-term applications of quantum computers will be the modeling of physical systems in which quantum mechanics plays a key role.
This is an incredibly challenging task for standard computers, but it is ideal for quantum computers. And it turns out that several key clean energy technologies, including solar cells and catalysts, have quantum mechanical effects at their core.
Channeling quantum potential for renewable energy
Let’s look at the case of battery storage for renewable energy, a crucial tool in the arsenal to combat climate change.
After years of notable price reductions, wind and solar power are now cheaper than fossil fuels and are considered essential to achieving net zero.
But both energy sources are intermittent. To enable capacity management at peaks and valleys of demand and to handle windless nights and days, energy storage is required. In the UK alone, National Grid estimates that more than 50 GW of capacity will be needed by 2050 to achieve net zero emissions.
For short-term needs, lithium-ion battery storage is the leading technology. However, the cost of battery storage can be more than triple the cost of onshore wind or solar power, making these technologies uncompetitive with fossil fuels.
However, on time scales of one day, there is still no commercially proven battery technology on a large scale.
The development of better batteries could radically change our ability to rely on solar and wind energy.
Better batteries, cleaner energy
Designing new batteries with better energy density is a key ambition, but has been held back by the need to conduct extensive laboratory experiments to test candidate materials.
There is a bewildering array of possible battery materials, but it would take too long to test them all in the lab, and existing computational methods for modeling them are sometimes too inaccurate to be useful.
Quantum computers will offer the ability to accurately calculate the energy densities of battery materials virtually, rather than in the laboratory.
This, in turn, will allow hundreds of new battery materials to be screened to select the most promising ones for final laboratory testing.
This is not just wishful thinking: we know how to design quantum algorithms to calculate key properties of battery materials; all that remains is to make the necessary performance improvements to the hardware and software so that these algorithms can run on meaningful problems.
Better batteries could also have a significant impact on clean energy beyond mere storage. For example, they could allow longer-range electric cars or even battery-powered flights.
Quantum computing could also contribute to the development of other clean technologies, such as photovoltaics for electricity generation and superconductors for electricity storage or transmission.
Targeting 2030 to help achieve net zero emissions by 2050
Reaching net zero by 2050 instead of 2070 could be the difference between achieving 1.5 degrees instead of 2 degrees of warming, enough to save tens of thousands of lives each year.
A new battery technology can take 10 to 20 years to go from prototype to full commercialization.
Therefore, for quantum computing to have a significant impact on achieving net zero emissions by 2050, we will need to see the first battery materials discovered using quantum computing around 2030.
This time scale can be achieved if we push to solve important problems like modeling battery materials in near-future quantum computers.
At Phasecraft, we have demonstrated reductions in the cost of quantum algorithms for modeling materials by factors of more than a million.
We believe that more such reductions can be found and that modeling of battery materials, as well as other important physical systems, using quantum computers is in the offing.
An important piece of the net zero puzzle
Quantum computing alone cannot achieve net zero emissions or “solve” climate change; This will require sustained international cooperation, both between world leaders and the quantum community, as well as the immediate implementation of significant emissions cuts.
But if we work together, we can use this technology to enable breakthrough green innovations.
Given the urgency of this problem, quantum hardware and software development must continue apace; Waiting for the technology to be fully mature would be too late to have an impact.
Quantum computing could be an important piece of the net zero puzzle. At least on this point, we hope that COP28 delegates can reach an agreement.
Ashley Montanaro is Professor of Quantum Computing at the University of Bristol and co-founder and CEO of Phasecraft, a quantum algorithms company.
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