Quantum computers will turn basic chemical used in fertilizers into a CO2-emissions busting technology
  • Quantum computers will help the chemicals industry discover new fertilizer production chemicals to replace a 100-year-old process and lower CO2 emissions. 
  • New quantum-generated chemicals to synthesize fertilizers will cut 3%-5% of the world’s natural gas consumption and reduce CO2 emissions, expert tells panel. 
  • Classical computer modeling can’t develop energy-efficient catalysts, which have great CO2 reduction potential, but currently available quantum machines may succeed.  

Within the next decade, quantum computers will help create the chemicals needed to make energy-efficient fertilizers and significantly cut carbon emissions, an expert told a technology panel last month.

Quantum computers may create molecules that replace chemical catalysts needed for fertilizer production, Jean-François Bobier, a Boston Consulting Group partner said at a presentation during the Quantum.Tech’s Digital Week online conference. Those catalysts consume 3%-5% of the world’s natural gas, cost nearly $300 billion a year and are responsible for 2% of annual worldwide CO2 emissions, Bobier said.

“It’s a really frustrating problem because we know there is a better way,” said Bobier, head of Boston Consulting’s research and development initiative on quantum computing and technology. “Nature is able to do it for free, using just water, air and sunlight. It’s just that we can reproduce it at scale in a factory setting.”

Today’s classical computers, which process information in bits or zeroes and ones, would take over 800,000 years to model the molecules to replace these chemicals. A quantum computer, which processes information in qubits or the superposition of its basis vectors, would require a day, Bobier estimates.

The first replacements for chemicals to synthesize fertilizers, or catalysts, modeled on quantum computers are within our grasp, Bobier said. Although they won’t be carbon-neutral, they will be far more carbon-efficient than the 100-year old catalysts in use today.

Quantum computers have the potential to tackle carbon storage, carbon capture and energy production issues that will help stem the tide of CO2 emissions needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than 2°C.

Quantum computers aren’t quite there yet. Still, Google’s quantum computer last year solved in just over 3 minutes a math problem that the tech giant claimed would take the best supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. 

Google’s quantum computer has 54 qubits. While powerful, this is far from the millions of qubits needed to operate a universal quantum computer with the potential to model the world in a way envisioned by Nobel prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman.

These early quantum computers may be enough to model smaller and less complex molecules such as catalysts. 

“Catalysts are small molecules, up to 250 atoms,” Bobier said. “That will be within the grasp of the qubits we will have.”

Big corporations are taking note of these first quantum machines — under development by Google, IBM, Canadian start-up D-Wave and others — which may have enough power to provide an advantage for the development of climate-fighting technologies.

Fertilizer chemical giant BASF teamed up with quantum software consultants HQS to explore algorithms to solve complex problems that may eventually run on quantum computers. Aerospace giant Airbus, automotive company VW and chemical company Evonik, are also exploring the use of quantum computer algorithms now for when the hardware becomes available.

“Yes, it will be a long time, and yes, we are going to have to be patient for the use cases, but we need to be prepared now,” Bobier said.