The technology industry is buzzing with enthusiasm for its latest development; quantum computing.

But while these are still early days for such a ground-breaking advance, IBM’s unveiling of the ‘first fully-integrated commercial quantum computer’ (the Q System One) in January 2019 still made world headlines. It also shocked many chemical industry chiefs into realising that a far-futuristic technology was suddenly an actual thing. For an unspecified price, it was even a commercial product.

The unveiling of the Q System One in Las Vegas in January 2019 made world headlines.

But what exactly could quantum computing (QC) do for the chemical industry and how would it impact chemical companies’ day to day business?

While quantum computers are still in their formative years, they are already exceptionally powerful. As the computing website The Next Web states, “At 100 qubits a single quantum computer processor would, theoretically, be more powerful than all the supercomputers on the planet combined.”  

Despite Q System One packing only 20 qubits of thinking power, the machine is still a beast. But in practical terms, is this enough for a chemical company to work with?

Not just yet, according to chemical industry consultants at McKinsey, who stated in their July 2019 report on the topic that, “Experts from industry and academia estimate that the first quantum-computing applications that promise to be useful for the chemical industry will require between roughly 1,000 and 10,000 qubits and may be here by the early-to-mid 2020s.”

Quantum computers are large and take a long time to set up.

When this happens, in just a few years’ time, the initial impact for the chemical industry will be in research, a place where computers are already playing a major role. As Iris Herrmann, a partner at the PwC Network consultancy Strategy&, explains in an insightful Pulse article on LinkedIn, “R&D in chemical and pharmaceutical companies nowadays does not only take place in laboratories, but often starts off with calculations and simulations on a computer. This approach saves time and money, as the actual chemical synthesis of compounds is often complicated to achieve.”

BASF has invested heavily in its 1.75 petaflop supercomputer, but it still has its limitations.

So, if current digital computing research is already effective at devising new chemical compounds, why does the chemical industry need quantum computing? The reason, as McKinsey observes, is that, “While chemical researchers have made a lot of headway with computational-chemistry tools to tackle issues that are ultimately governed by quantum mechanics, today’s tools can provide only rough approximations. For example, tools such as density functional theory (DFT) provide approximations of molecular systems and are somewhat effective for research on small molecules but severely limited for areas such as solids, molecules with heavy atoms, or large molecules (such as proteins).”

“QCs will be able to model much more complex molecules/materials and simulate their behaviour and properties under specific circumstances,” says Herrmann. They are the next step towards more efficient and inventive research programs.

This could have a profound impact in a number of chemical industry sectors, as the McKinsey report highlights, alongside, “the development of crop-protection chemicals and many other segments of the specialty-chemicals industry”, quantum computing will also be key in material design. “Take the example of new solid-state materials: the design potential opened up by quantum computing could help new-materials development for a number of leading-edge segments, such as battery materials, semiconductors, magnets, and superconductors.”

Current methods for developing next-generation superconductors are complicated.

In fact, such is the computational power of QCs, that they will be able to develop chemical products and substances that would the human mind would never have conceived.

However, quantum computers will have a much wider influence than chemical industry R&D, as they will also play a key role in the Big Data revolution.

While the application of large-scale data processing in the chemicals sector has been much slower that predicted, QCs will be able to speed up data analysis and make it a more effective, real-time, tool.  

Seth Lloyd, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, has already devised a formula to aid QCs in finding simple solutions to the most complex questions posed by Big Data.

As MIT News reports, “If you have a dataset with 300 points, a conventional approach to analysing all the topological features in that system would require ‘a computer the size of the universe,’ Lloyd says. That is, it would take 2300(two to the 300th power) processing units — approximately the number of all the particles in the universe. In other words, the problem is simply not solvable in that way.

‘That’s where our algorithm kicks in,’ he says. Solving the same problem with the new system, using a quantum computer, would require just 300 quantum bits — and a device this size may be achieved in the next few years, according to Lloyd.”

Being able to solve such unfathomable computations, could also lead QC to aid chemical companies in areas beyond research and design. In time, the areas of logistics, production, and marketing will all come under the scrutiny of qubit thinking power, as this schematic diagram from McKinsey shows.

QC could also aid digital security, as data protection becomes ever more complicated. Advanced cryptographic technology is currently developing security keys based on prime numbers more than 300 digits long.

Predicting the future could also become more accurate. Whether businesses are attempting to foresee market trends, global raw material supplies, currency exchange rates, or even just the weather, QC will give greater insight into how we answer a vast range of questions.

Overall, the chemical industry has been slow to adopt new computer technologies and strategies that have turned other industries on their heads. However, with the clear benefits that QC offers to chemical industry R&D and beyond, we may soon see the larger chemical companies becoming leaders in applying and developing quantum computing, and this is something everyone in the chemical industry should be ready for.


Photo credit: Theverge, McKinsey, Newunderstanding, BASF, & Fossbytes