This Collaboration Will Use Quantum Computing To Make Manufacturing More Sustainable

On Monday, Germany-based polymer manufacturer Covestro announced a 5-year collaboration agreement with San Francisco-based quantum computing software developer QC Ware. Together, the companies will work to the develop quantum computing algorithms that can improve Covestro’s manufacturing processes and materials.

“We are fully convinced that the technology of quantum computing will give computational chemists a decisive boost in the future,” says Torsten Heinemann, Covestro’s head of group innovation.

Chemical manufacturing and materials science are industries where microscopic changes in microscopic systems can have major impacts on macroscale development. Computational chemists work hard to define microscopic structures in, for example, a solar panel, down to the level of how electrons move through it. Subtle changes in that infrastructure can mean percentage gains in efficiency that could yield megawatts more power from a solar energy plant every year. Similarly, a few molecules difference in a catalyst for a chemical reaction could mean that the reaction can take place at a temperature a few degrees lower–which could save manufacturers thousands or even millions of dollars in costs.

But the challenge of this chemistry is that it has to be done on the quantum level, where the math is so complex that even supercomputers have trouble crunching the numbers. This creates a tradeoff where being able to design materials or processes in a timely way means simplifying mathematical models and approximating quantum systems. The more simplified the model, the faster computers can crunch it–but at a cost of manufacturing quality or efficiency.

That’s where quantum computing steps in. Because these systems take advantage of quantum processes to create computing power, they hold the potential to simulate chemistry without approximation. “Quantum chemistry is extremely natural to do on a quantum computer,” explains Rob Parrish, QC Ware’s head of chemistry simulations (and alumnus of the 2015 Forbes Under 30 Science list). “And the reason is that you’re trying to make a doppelganger of one quantum system in another quantum system. So it does map very nicely.”

Covestro and QC Ware have spent the past year in a partnership to develop a proof-of-concept for modeling the types of reactions that produce molecules in industrial applications. This work has resulted in two papers, one that shows new techniques that allow for simulation using fewer quantum computing resources, and the other developing a new way to calculate energy gradients. These gradients are used to simulate useful chemical processes by manufacturers.

Right now, the quantum computing hardware that exists isn’t capable of running some of the big simulations that the two companies are interested in, says Parrish. But the collaboration is aimed at having the software and algorithms ready for the day that it is.

“The initiative that we’ve set out to do this is: in five years, deploy this on the best near-term quantum computer that’s out there at the moment,” he adds. “And this is a thing that will have many individual research streams within it.”

Heinemann explains that in the short term, Covestro is hoping to apply these new techniques to its chemical manufacturing processes that depend on catalytic reactions, which should be easier to simulate with quantum hardware that’s being developed now and can be expected to be available within a few years. By improving these types of chemistry, Covestro hopes to have a more efficient process that produces less waste. “That means more output, higher quality of the chemical reactions in the products we are generating, and less energy consumption in the plants,” he adds.

A second project Covestro and QC Ware will be looking at is the possibility of circularity of manufacturing. The company expects there to be more legislation globally geared towards making it possible for polymers and other materials to be recycled back into their original components, rather than being dumped in landfills or burned. “We also think that quantum computing here can be a key enabler,” says Heinemann.

In the longer term, both companies believe that as quantum computing hardware matures, it will be able to drive more sophisticated simulations that create new possibilities for product manufacturing. For Covestro, one opportunity is in the realm of renewable energy, where quantum computing can help design better solar panels and battery systems. For QC Ware, that means developing quantum software and algorithms that can be sold to other materials manufacturers, and also provide a foundation for other applications such as drug discovery.

“We’ve got this mutually beneficial arrangement where for them, they can get up to speed in quantum information and quantum computing, and they can internally use the technology to develop products that they sell into the market,” says QC Ware cofounder and CEO Matt Johnson.

“I think this partnership and collaboration with QC Ware is showcasing how research and development in global networks works,” adds Heineman. “That means we are bringing together the right expertise and tailor our collaborations to drive the common purpose.”


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