Can the world's most powerful computers solve climate change?

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Understanding the full extent of climate change and its effects can be complicated. But the issue causing climate change can be understood relatively simply: there is too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. To deal with that issue, we focus largely on how we can reduce the amount of carbon that we are emitting, but there's another approach as well: removing the carbon that is already in the atmosphere. Accomplishing that task is currently costly and more theoretical than it is practical, but breakthroughs in quantum computing may hold the key to quickly, efficiently and effectively sucking pollution right out of the sky.

The concept of quantum computing provides promise for a lot of industries, from medical research to weather modeling. But one of the areas it could provide the most positive impact is in addressing climate change — particularly when it comes to capturing carbon and cutting down on the amount of energy that we are using. The new model of computation would unlock a level of computing power that is currently unachievable by conventional computers, which opens up the possibility of new models and simulations — new insights into the world that we can't currently see, including new methods to contain and eliminate the emissions that we have spent more than a century sending up into the atmosphere.

What is quantum computing?

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To understand the potential of quantum computing, it's important to understand what exactly quantum computing is — which is no small task, seeing as it relies on theoretical physics. Traditional computers rely on bits to store data, which you have likely seen represented with 0s and 1s. Quantum computing uses a mechanical phenomenon known as quantum bits or qubits to store information, and qubits do not have the same binary restrictions as their traditional counterparts. Rather than being a 0 or a 1, a qubit can be a 0, a 1 or both simultaneously. This technical achievement is enabled by microscopic particles like electrons and photons that can occupy different states at the same time, as long as they are not observed. If you're familiar with the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, then you'll at least have an idea of how this works: essentially, until you look at something, you never truly know what state it is in so it can be in multiple states at once.

In recent years, quantum computing has broken from the realm of the theoretical and become more of a reality. Earlier this year, Google claimed "quantum supremacy" — an achievement accomplished by building a quantum processor capable of completing computations that would essentially be impossible for any traditional computer to process. The company claimed its processor completed in just 200 seconds a task that would have taken a traditional computer about 10,000 years to do. Google's claims were called into question by competitors, but regardless if Google achieved true quantum supremacy, it did prove the viability of quantum computing and opened the door to new developments and breakthroughs in computing power.

The uncertainty of climate change


Enter climate change. We know that the planet is warming. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Earth's average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (about 0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century. We also know that during that time frame, humans have pumped more carbon dioxide and other emissions into the atmosphere than at any other time in human history. We have a wealth of data documenting these changes — enough so that there is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real. What we don't have at this point is a reliable way to understand the effects of these changes or predict future outcomes. Scientists do have tools that they use to project the potential changes that the planet might experience because of climate change, but those models are largely limited by traditional computing power. If you've ever opened your weather app and found that the forecast was entirely wrong, you've experienced the shortcomings of current modeling systems. Meteorologists and scientists do the best they can with the tools they have, but there really is no surefire way to project how our emissions are affecting the atmosphere and what sort of long-term outcomes we might experience because of it.

How quantum computing can help address climate change

Quantum computing can close that gap — and more than that, it might contain a key to solving our emissions problem. Because the computational power of quantum processors are multitudes more powerful than traditional alternatives, computer models can become much more accurate. By feeding larger datasets into the machine and having that information processed quicker and more efficiently than ever before, we can get a clearer view of what exactly climate change is doing to the planet and what might be on the horizon for us. These models can also extend to understanding large complex molecules — something that traditional computers are effectively unable to accomplish. A report from the World Economic Forum explains this is because simulating a complex molecule requires exponentially more computer power with every atom added, and by the time you attempt to render a molecule with 70 atoms, it would take a traditional computer about 13 billion years to accomplish that. Quantum computing could allow us to finally accurately simulate complex molecules, which would open up the possibility of understanding exactly how carbon dioxide would react to different methods for capturing and processing it. This would allow scientists to determine the best ways to literally suck carbon out of the atmosphere, as well as discover new methods to recycle and reuse existing carbon rather than pumping out more emissions.

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If we know, with reasonable accuracy, how carbon reacts to different ways of interacting with it through simulations, we can finally take action to remove the harmful gas from our atmosphere. Carbon capture is something that has been on the minds of scientists for decades now, with new tools on the horizon that can help to suck emissions out of the sky and put them to use again. Recent breakthroughs suggest that it is possible to turn greenhouse gas emissions into a fuel source that can be reused. These types of developments are not a suitable replacement for lowering our levels of emissions and ending the practice of indiscriminately pumping carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but it provides a serviceable middle ground between continuing down our current path and finally embracing the reality of climate change and taking the drastic action needed to prevent the most devastating effects that are looming in the future. Quantum computing may finally unlock the technology that we need to remove as much carbon as possible from the atmosphere and put it to good use. Until we finally achieve net-zero carbon emissions — something that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes we need to accomplish by 2050 if we have any hope of limiting the impact of climate change — finding a worthwhile way to suck up excess carbon and put it to work would come as a marked improvement. If we have to have excess carbon in the atmosphere, we might as well make good use of it.