Quantum Computing

IBM Quantum Summit 2020: Exploring the Promise of Quantum Computing for Industry

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Advances in business and technology have always progressed hand in hand, particularly when it comes to information technology. As industries look to solve problems beyond the limits of classical computers., businesses have begun to look to quantum computers, which leverage the same physical rules as atoms to manipulate information. More than 100 companies, academics and government institutions have already partnered with IBM to study ways the company’s cloud-accessible quantum computers can help solve industry’s biggest challenges.

A recent panel discussion on “The Promise of Quantum for Industry” at the annual IBM Quantum Summit homed in on several business challenges that quantum computers are well-suited to tackle. Foremost among them are the ability to help researchers create simulations of complex chemical compounds and reactions out of reach for today’s computers. Such simulations are expected to have a profound impact on the development of new materials that improve battery technology, resist corrosion and make renewable energy more efficient and less expensive.

Researchers from three of those clients — The Boeing Company, ExxonMobil and Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz – joined Jamie Garcia, IBM Senior Manager, Quantum Applications, Algorithms and Theory, and me on the panel to share insights into the work they’re doing with IBM’s quantum computers, the anticipated benefits and how to properly set expectations with their corporate counterparts.

Countering corrosion

The Boeing Company and IBM are working together to explore quantum computing’s potential to deliver the advanced computation and communications increasingly at the heart of aerospace innovation. Boeing is taking advantage of IBM’s cloud-based Quantum Experience platform to provide researchers with access to quantum computers and other powerful resources that will help determine how best to leverage the technology to solve the aerospace industry’s biggest challenges, including materials testing and optimization.

Manufacturers such as Boeing evaluate materials based on their properties to determine how those materials will withstand operating conditions over time. Much time and effort is spent on material selection, qualification and testing. The current materials testing paradigm, however, relies on months-long screening in the laboratory, followed by several years of outdoor exposure or in-service evaluation. Boeing is planning to use quantum computing to help the company perform comprehensive materials evaluations, model a material’s reaction to environmental conditions and determine the estimated service life and performance much more efficiently and comprehensively than is possible using classical computers.

Optimization is another important area with potential applications for quantum computing – from logistics routing to factory assembly planning and scheduling optimization. Boeing researchers are experimenting with IBM’s quantum computing resources to explore multiple optimization applications.

Catalyzing renewable energy

ExxonMobil is planning to use quantum computing to accelerate the development of new materials that help the company’s push to provide more renewable energy. One of the company’s top priorities is generating energy using less carbon, which requires the creation of new catalysts that work using lower amounts of energy, said panelist Amy Herhold, Director, Physics and Mathematical Sciences at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

“We’ve heard a lot of presenters [at IBM’s Quantum Summit] talk about the bottlenecks in materials development and the potential for quantum computing to really accelerate that,” Herhold said. “In some areas we can do that very well — we have a lot of experimental validation of the modeling – in others we can’t. The modelling can only be used to infer after the fact what had happened, so we have to rely on experiments, and that’s a very slow process.”

ExxonMobil is hoping quantum computers can improve the accuracy of the company’s simulations of materials’ chemical properties. Working with IBM, the company has developed a way to do that on a quantum computer for the smallest of molecules – hydrogen. “The next challenge for us is scaling up those methods to get those accurate thermo kinetic properties for larger and larger molecules, as the computers’ capabilities grow,” Herhold said.

Building better batteries

Battery research and development is a core area of focus for Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz. “There are some really hard problems to be solved in simulation, testing and finding new materials,” said panelist Ben Boeser, Mercedes-Benz Director of Open Innovation. “Anything that could help us get faster or take these problems into a simulation world would make a huge difference for us as a company, particularly as we look to electrify our fleet. That’s the number one topic where we have invested.”

The multiyear process of testing and validating new battery technology could translate into missed opportunities in the market if this work is delayed, Boeser said. “We operate on very long development cycles in that space,” he added. “If we work with new chemistry today, you might see that as a customer in the next five years or so. For us, cutting those timeframes shorter has a big impact on our customers.”

Battery chemistry is very complicated. “Whenever the surface of a material is in contact with another phase (liquid or gas), those can be very complex reactions,” said IBM’s Garcia, who is working with Mercedes-Benz to study the reaction mechanisms and pathways for next-generation batteries that are impractical today due to chemistry and engineering limitations.

“Understanding what’s going on behind the scenes should help make these a reality,” Garcia said. “We’ve been looking at some of the specific chemistries that can be very complicated. We’re also looking at classical methods to help improve the algorithms so we can minimize the number of qubits we need or make the calculations function even in the presence of noise on the hardware.”

Quantum Computing isn’t just for industry giants

Also at the Summit, IBM also announced several new members of the IBM Quantum Network across the public and private sector including General Atomics, University of Tennessee, Miraex, and Nordic Quantum.

  • General Atomics: As the operator of the DIII-D National Fusion Facility for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, General Atomics has been a pioneer in fusion energy research for decades. As part of the Oak Ridge National Lab Hub, General Atomics is advancing computational chemistry techniques on IBM Quantum Network hardware in an effort to improve the understanding of plasma-facing materials within the extreme environment of fusion energy tokamaks. Sufficiently simulating surface reaction pathways that occur at the vessel wall is an extremely challenging computational problem requiring new capabilities like those of quantum computing. Achieving this understanding is important to realize clean, sustainable energy from nuclear fusion.
  • University of Tennessee: Also part of the Oak Ridge National Lab Hub, Lucas Platter, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee, and his team plan to use IBM quantum resources for quantum simulation of physical system. His group is particularly interested in how existing algorithms can be adjusted to run optimally on NISQ systems.
  • Miraex: Miraex is founded by a team of experienced quantum scientists and engineers based at the EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne, Switzerland. The start-up is focused on developing a quantum internet using photonics-based hardware and algorithms to securely connect the different QPUs (quantum processing units). Using Qiskit the team will also develop simulation and pulse-level control of quantum hardware well-suited for Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) and future networked quantum devices.
  • Nordic Quantum: NQCG will leverage IBM Quantum to develop quantum algorithms for industrial applications and simulate scaling their performance. NQCG will also conduct simulations of quantum photonic hardware. Through the IBM Quantum Network, NQCG will have access to an internationally recognized leading network of expert developers and users of quantum computing technology, in addition to access to IBM’s quantum systems. This will help NQCG to identify and get to know new potential partners and collaborators in theoretical and experimental research, advancing productization and commercialization of our technology, together with IBM Quantum and other organizations in the global IBM Quantum Network.

The road to practical quantum computing

Quantum computing improvements require simultaneous advances in hardware, software and theory. “They all need to grow up at the same time so we can realize the power of quantum computing for these types of calculations,” Garcia said.

One of the biggest business challenges to making quantum computing a viable option is having a roadmap of the advances industry can expect in the coming years. This is why, at the Quantum Summit, IBM announced its roadmap to reaching 1,000-plus qubits by 2023. IBM’s newly announced roadmap, “gives me an extra push to stay locked in and make sure our whole organization comes with us to be ready when the technology is ready,” Boesser said.

For quantum computing to be successful in industry, leaders advocating for the technology must find the right balance between optimism and realism. “We need to maintain the optimism of the possibilities for the future but balance that with the realism that we are not yet there, and there is much work that needs to be done to realize that vision,” Boeing senior technical fellow and Chief Engineer, Disruptive Computing & Networks Jay Lowell said. “Business investment comes with an expectation of return on that investment, and we have to be realistic about the time and nature of those investments in order to keep pushing towards that vision.”

Boesser agreed. “At Mercedes-Benz, our goal is to be in step with the technology and embed ourselves as close as possible to the hardware advancements. We are excited to see those advances are accelerating at a rate we couldn’t have predicted to that degree maybe two years ago.”


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