Practical uses for quantum computers are emerging

Practical uses for quantum computers are emerging

Technology News |
By Wisse Hettinga

Practical uses for quantum computers are emerging in chemistry, promising to speed the development of materials, catalysts, and drugs

Last year, researchers here at Quantinuum, a quantum computing startup, used a chip with eight ytterbium ions to compute the precise arrangement of a hydrogen molecule’s two electrons in their most stable state, out of myriad possible configurations. In and of itself, that computational feat is barely worth noting; a typical laptop can manage it in seconds. But it marked the first demonstration of an advanced quantum simulation that’s expected to perform better—and take on more complex molecules—as quantum computers grow more powerful.

The core of this quantum computer looks familiar enough: a silicon chip the size of a stamp. But the resemblance to your laptop ends there. The chip, cocooned within a vacuum chamber and cooled nearly to absolute zero, is patterned with 198 gold electrodes, arranged like an oval racetrack.

Above the racetrack, a handful of ytterbium ions are trapped and levitated by a train of electrical, radiofrequency, and laser pulses. Subsequent manipulations impart specific amounts of energy to the ions and coax them to interact with one another to carry out a sequence of logical operations. A final burst of laser pulses nudges each ion to either fluoresce or not—a flash of binary code that detectors read out as the computation’s solution.

The achievement shows how quantum computers are tentatively moving from the realm of mere promise to tackling real-world challenges. Quantinuum is one of many companies that believes applications in ­chemistry—particularly the hunt for novel drugs and catalysts—will be among the very first practical tasks for these new machines. They are ideally suited for predicting the structure and behavior of molecules, researchers say, because both the machines and the molecules are ruled by the counterintuitive laws of quantum mechanics.

“We are currently using chemistry problems to advance quantum computing instead of using quantum computing to advance chemistry,” says Quantinuum’s head of strategy, Chad Edwards. “But there will be a tipping point,” where those roles will be reversed. “There has been a clear speedup in the past year,” agrees quantum physicist Louis-Paul Henry at PASQAL, a quantum computing startup based in Paris that is also focusing on chemistry. “More and more people are talking about applications and taking a look at harder problems relevant for real world uses.”

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