Quantum Computing Could Help Save the Earth… Eventually

Coming soon to reduce carbon emissions near you

  • A new report says quantum computing could be instrumental in fighting climate change. 
  • The revolutionary new computing technology could help reduce carbon emissions for a broad range of industries.
  • Experts say the report’s findings are grounded in solid science, but translating the ideas into practical applications will be a significant challenge.
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A coming revolution in quantum computing could improve a range of technologies and help fight climate change, a new report claims. 

The report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company says that by harnessing the mysterious power of quantum mechanics, computers could find everything from better batteries to ways to capture emitted carbon. The company predicts that useful quantum computers could arrive by the end of the decade.

"Meeting the goal of net-zero emissions that countries and some industries have committed to won't be possible without huge advances in climate technology that aren't achievable today," the report's authors wrote. "Even the most powerful supercomputers available now are not able to solve some of these problems. Quantum computing could be a game-changer in those areas."

Quantum Leap

According to the McKinsey report, advances driven by quantum computing could help change the economy in ways that would improve the environment. For example, new techniques could reduce methane produced by agriculture, make the production of cement emissions-free, and develop better renewable solar technology. 

Batteries are one area that could see radical advances thanks to quantum computing, the report claims. Making higher density lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries could enable new applications in electric vehicles and energy storage. Recent research has found that quantum computing will be able to simulate the chemistry of batteries in ways that aren't currently possible.

"As a result, we could create batteries with 50 percent higher energy density for use in heavy-goods electric vehicles, which could substantially bring forward their economic use," according to the report. "The carbon benefits to passenger EVs wouldn't be huge, as these vehicles are expected to reach cost parity in many countries before the first generation of quantum computers is online, but consumers might still enjoy cost savings."

By their very nature, quantum computers are better at solving more scientific puzzles than classical computers, Michael Biercuk, CEO and founder of Q-CTRL, a quantum computing startup, told Lifewire in an email interview. He said that most areas of science rely on building computer models to solve difficult problems. But, he said, in many areas of biology, chemistry, and materials science, computer models aren't useful.  

The underlying physics of most systems is captured in standard computing and governed by the rules of quantum mechanics. It takes an enormous amount of computational resources to build accurate computer models of even modest systems, Biercuk said. 

"Quantum computers have the potential to deliver the necessary computing power to solve some of these problems," he added. "Intuitively, quantum computers encode problems governed by the rules of quantum physics using systems that obey the same rules. There's great subtlety in how we can take advantage of that correspondence, but it gives a picture that quantum computing might be able to unlock certain problems of great relevance to mitigating climate change."

Hope or Hype?

Experts told Lifewire that the climate-enhancing claims in the McKinsey report are grounded in solid science, but translating the ideas into practical applications will be a major challenge.  

"The impediment to solving the climate change crisis any time soon is that scientists are still researching how to develop quantum computing for less money and make it more available to the everyday person," Sergio Suarez Jr., CEO of TackleAI, told Lifewire via email. "Until this happens, we all need to do our part to reduce our energy use with standard computers."

Mark Mattingley-Scott, the managing director EMEA for quantum computing company Quantum Brilliance, told Lifewire via email that quantum computing results could come even faster than the report predicts. "There is potentially a path to achieving the necessary computational speedup in massively parallel deployments sooner than by the end of the decade," he added. 

One quantum computing expert says the report even downplays the potential of quantum computing. Yuval Boger, of quantum computing company Classiq, said the report focuses on chemical processes and material development, but the possibility of quantum computers is wider.

"For instance, quantum computers can help optimize traffic and thus reduce the mileage and emissions of vehicles," Boger said. "Quantum computers can also do a better job in predicting weather patterns and help smooth out the power generation requirements."

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