Todd Wasserman

Jul 31st 2017

Quantum Computers: How They Can Revolutionize Chemistry


Quantum computers have an obvious advantage when it comes to speed — they are up to 100 million times faster than standard computers. But this next generation of computers has an application that’s not so obvious: They can help advance chemistry.

In particular, quantum computing can study chemical reactions, which are also quantum. For instance, computing the energies for propane can take about 10 days with standard computing, according to Google’s Research Blog. Modeling larger chemical circuits is another task that’s impossible on current computers but will be possible on quantum computers.

The State of Quantum Computing

Quantum theory explains how matter and energy behave on the subatomic level, including the mind-bending idea that one particle can be in different states at the same time. That theory has been applied to computing so that rather than read data in binary forms of 1 and 0, quantum computing machines read quantum bits or qubits, which can store more data than 1 or 0 because they can be both simultaneously.

IBM and Google have announced plans to commercialize quantum computing in a few years (in Google’s case, five years). Both companies plan to sell access via cloud computing. The tech world is abuzz with the potential for such machines since they can conceivably be a boon to encryption, materials science, artificial intelligence and chemistry.

Practical Advances

The most tangible practical advance chemistry can gain from quantum computing is improving batteries and electronics. Researchers use current computers to simulate molecules and chemical reactions to test new ideas for drugs and materials. Though such research can help avoid dead ends and cut time spent on physical experiments, it “accounts for a significant proportion of the workload of the world’s supercomputers,” according to MIT Technology Review. Even so, research with current computers can’t perfectly recreate the quantum behavior of atoms and electrons the way quantum computing will be able to. Access to quantum computers could accelerate research into light-emitting molecules for displays and batteries suitable for grid-scale energy storage.

In addition, quantum computing can also aid drug design and health care. As IBM’s Cloud Computing News blog explained, doctors can use quantum computing to more accurately determine radiation doses for cancer patients and pinpoint where radiation should be applied. Quantum computing can also help pharmaceutical researchers model compounds and interactions for new drugs.

Like the Transistor

While the possibilities of quantum computing can be addling, Chris Monroe, a professor at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the quantum computing startup IonQ, used an apt analogy to explain its benefits. Monroe told MIT Technology Review that quantum computing is like the early days of transistors. Back then, no one thought that anyone would be able to get 50 billion transistors on a chip, he said. Thinking beyond that was difficult. The same goes for quantum computing and chemistry, though the potential benefits are enticing.