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.
Materials' Quantum Leap
BreakthroughIBM has simulated the electronic structure of a small molecule, using a seven-qubit quantum computer.
Why It MattersUnderstanding molecules in exact detail will allow chemists to design more effective drugs and better materials for generating and distributing energy.
Key PlayersIBM; Google; Harvard’s Alán Aspuru-Guzik
Availability5 to 10 years
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.
It should become possible to accurately simulate far larger and more interesting molecules as scientists build machines with more qubits and, just as important, better quantum algorithms.