Author : Bhavin Vadera

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 14, 2023
The adoption of quantum computing technology could prove to be revolutionary for India to reduce its carbon footprint
Importance of quantum computing for reducing carbon emissions Recently, in a major development in the quantum computing field, researchers from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and the University of Kentucky conceived an algorithm that promises to significantly advance carbon capture technology, that will help in reducing carbon emissions. This algorithm can be run on existing quantum computers, and therefore, can be widely adopted by other researchers. While it is still early days for quantum computing technology, practical applications like these will definitely spur the continued need for further research and investment in this field.

Global warming and carbon capture technology   

Global warming has been a major concern for humankind for a long time. It is primarily caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere due to excessive use of fossil fuels, which is not showing any signs of slowing down. Atmospheric CO2 has risen by almost 50 percent from pre-industrial levels. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the global surface average for CO2 rose by 2.13 parts per million (ppm) from 415.7 ppm in 2021 to 417.06 ppm in 2022, following the trend set by the preceding decade. This unprecedented level of emissions could turn out to be potentially catastrophic for life on the planet.
A key dimension of this is simulating these chemical reactions computationally, which requires an analysis of their molecular interactions on a quantum scale.
One of the methods used to counteract global warming is by using atmospheric carbon capture in which certain compounds, mostly amines, for eg. ammonia (NH3), are used to chemically bind with CO2, effectively removing it from the atmosphere. The caveat is that the current reactions being used tend to be expensive and not very efficient. So, using these does not seem to be economically viable at present. Therefore, scientists are still in search of more optimised carbon capture reactions. A key dimension of this is simulating these chemical reactions computationally, which requires an analysis of their molecular interactions on a quantum scale. This, however, is easier said than done, as these calculations lie beyond the capability of classical computers, even for the simplest compounds. This is where quantum computing technology steps in.

Importance of quantum computing for carbon capture

Quantum computers have been an exciting tech development in recent times. They are exponentially faster than classical computers which makes them suitable for several applications in a wide variety of areas. However, they are still in their nascent stage of development, and even the most sophisticated machines are limited to a few hundred qubits<1>. There is also the inherent problem of random fluctuations or noise—the loss of information held by qubits. This is one of the chief obstacles in the practical implementation of quantum computers. As a result, it takes more time for these noisy intermediate-scale quantum computers (NISQs) to perform complex calculations. Even the most basic reaction of CO2 with the simplest amine, ammonia, turns out to be too complex for these NISQs.
VQE utilises a quantum computer to estimate the energy of a quantum system, while using a classical computer to optimise and suggest improvements to the calculation.
One possible remedy to this problem is to combine quantum and classical computers, to overcome the problem of noise in quantum algorithms. This approach has led to the creation of the Variational Quantum Eigensolver<2> (VQE)—a method used by the group at NETL and the University of Kentucky. VQE utilises a quantum computer to estimate the energy of a quantum system, while using a classical computer to optimise and suggest improvements to the calculation. It has been successfully used to solve complex problems like finding the binding energy of hydrogen atom chains and the energy of a water molecule. However, with the rapid advancement in quantum computing tech, both these problems are expected to be resolved by the second half of this decade. CO2 capture research is considered to be one of the low-hanging fruits for the application of quantum computing and the technology to implement algorithms like these seems to be merely years away. This could have potentially huge ramifications since it is estimated that this could help develop climate change technologies which will be able to reduce carbon emissions by the order of 7 gigatons per year by 2035. The NETL-Kentucky team is now collaborating with IBM Quantum to implement their algorithm on an existing quantum computer.

India, global warming and quantum computing

India has made a considerable effort to reduce its carbon footprint in recent years by investing in renewable sources of energy like solar and wind energy farms. Despite this, India ranks third in global carbon emissions, with an estimated 2.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted in 2022. It is also projected to have the largest increase in emissions, at around 6 percent. India has recently made huge investments in the field of quantum technology, with the Centre allocating INR 8,000 crores for the National Quantum Mission, to fund scientific and industrial research development. The mission targets developing intermediate-scale quantum computers with 50-100 physical qubits within the next eight years. However, it is still a long way to go if India intends to catch up with countries like the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), and China, which are already much further along.
India has recently made huge investments in the field of quantum technology, with the Centre allocating INR 8,000 crores for the National Quantum Mission, to fund scientific and industrial research development.
It is clear that increasing its investment in quantum computing technology is bound to provide India with a myriad of advantages. The fact that it could potentially help to drastically reduce national carbon emissions provides further impetus to this cause. India, being one of the biggest contributors to global carbon emissions, would do well to pay attention. Besides, this technology has potentially far-reaching consequences when it comes to other calculations in quantum chemistry. The algorithm being developed by the NETL/Kentucky team could also be applied to other chemical reactions with potential applications in chemistry, biology, and medicine. In the US, IBM has taken the lead in conducting research in quantum computing and is collaborating with universities from all around the world. For instance, it announced a US$ 100-million initiative with the University of Tokyo and the University of Chicago to develop a 100,000 qubit quantum-centric supercomputer at the G7 Summit held in Japan recently. It has also announced a three-year collaboration with the National University of Singapore, which will give researchers access to IBM’s quantum computers on the cloud. In the UK, the University of Oxford’s Responsible Technology Institute (RTI) has recently announced a research collaboration with the Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub (QCS)— a conglomeration of 17 universities supported by a wide range of commercial and government organisations—and Ernst & Young. The Indian government, along with the country’s premier institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institute of Science (IISC), should enter into such collaborations with some of these organisations and universities.
The fact that it could potentially help to drastically reduce national carbon emissions provides further impetus to this cause. India, being one of the biggest contributors to global carbon emissions, would do well to pay attention.
It would also be advantageous for the private sector to invest in this technology. Quantum computers, being exponentially faster than classical computers, can tackle more complex and sophisticated business problems. “Constant depth” quantum circuits have proved to be more powerful than their classical counterparts. Their ability to solve complex logistics optimisation problems will provide several industries with considerable cost-cutting measures. This is why companies like Vodafone and ExxonMobil have recently announced partnerships with IBM to invest in research in quantum computing technology. There is an urgent need for the Indian private sector to follow suit as its presence in this domain is seriously lacking and the government needs to incentivise it to do the same.
Prateek Tripathi is a probationary Research Assistant with the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation.
<1> Classical computers process data in the form of bits (0s or 1s), whereas quantum computers allow the information carrying particles (usually photons) to be in a superposition of 0 and 1 states, known as quantum bits or qubits. <2> The term “Eigensolver” comes from the word eigenvalue which refers to the value of physical properties of a quantum system like energy, position, momentum, etc. <3> Generally, molecules can undergo electronic, vibrational or rotational transitions when exposed to radiation. Electronic transitions take place when electrons in the molecule become excited from one energy level to another. Here, the electrons tend to move from a low energy level to a high energy level. The change in the energy that is associated with this transition provides information about the structure of the molecule and helps in determining the molecular properties such as colour. Vibrational transition of a molecule refers to the movement of the molecule from one vibrational energy level to another. This type of transition occurs in between different vibrational levels of the same electronic state.
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