Material's Quantum Leap

The prospect of powerful new quantum computers comes with a puzzle. They’ll be capable of feats of computation inconceivable with today’s machines, but we haven’t yet figured out what we might do with those powers.

One likely and enticing possibility: precisely designing molecules.

Chemists are already dreaming of new proteins for far more effective drugs, novel electrolytes for better batteries, compounds that could turn sunlight directly into a liquid fuel, and much more efficient solar cells.

We don’t have these things because molecules are ridiculously hard to model on a classical computer. Try simulating the behavior of the electrons in even a relatively simple molecule and you run into complexities far beyond the capabilities of today’s computers.

But it’s a natural problem for quantum computers, which instead of digital bits representing 1s and 0s use “qubits” that are themselves quantum systems. Recently, IBM researchers used a quantum computer with seven qubits to model a small molecule made of three atoms.

Materials' Quantum Leap

  • Breakthrough - IBM has simulated the electronic structure of a small molecule, using a seven-qubit quantum computer.
  • Why It Matters - Understanding molecules in exact detail will allow chemists to design more effective drugs and better materials for generating and distributing energy.
  • Key Players - IBM; Google; Harvard’s Alán Aspuru-Guzik
  • Availability - 5 to 10 years
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