IonQ quantum computing and Hyundai Motor Company recently announced a partnership focused on using quantum computing to study lithium compounds and battery chemistry. The partnership combines IonQ’s quantum computing expertise with Hyundai's lithium battery knowledge.
To better understand the project, I spoke with Dr. Jungsang Kim, IonQ’s Chief Technology Officer. Dr. Kim co-founded IonQ along with Dr. Christopher Monroe. They are two of the world's leading quantum computer engineers. Dr. Kim is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Physics, and Computer Science at Duke University and served as a member of the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee.
Groundbreaking chemical simulations aren’t new to IonQ. In 2019, Dr. Kim and a large team of researchers performed the first quantum computer simulation of a water molecule. At the time, water was one of the most complex molecules to be simulated on a quantum computer. The results approached the precision a computer model needed to make an accurate chemical prediction, known as chemical accuracy.
“We did the water molecule three years ago with a pretty extensive theory of what it takes to simulate water,” Dr. Kim said. “But back then, our quantum computer’s performance wasn't high enough to do everything we laid out in the paper.”
Since that experiment, IonQ’s trapped-ion quantum computer has significantly increased its power and computational capabilities with a number of developments, including a new architecture that provides a future method to scale up to millions of qubits.
Batteries are not only a significant cost component of electric vehicles, but the devices are also an important differentiator for vehicle range in the consumer market. The partnership aims to create an advanced battery chemistry model for quantum computers. Such a model would require an advanced quantum computer equipped with high quality logical qubits and capable of running very deep quantum circuits. It also requires the use of a quantum algorithm that makes looping calculations through a classical computer to optimize molecular energy levels.
Simulating the behavior of matter at the atomic level will also be an important application for future fault-tolerant quantum computers to develop new types of material and pharmaceuticals.
Over the past few months, Dr. Kim said there have been several discussions between IonQ and Hyundai to define the types of problems that will be undertaken. Work has already begun on the project.
Hyundai believes that quantum chemistry simulation will help discover new ways to improve the next generation of lithium batteries. Hyundai is not alone in that belief. Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz are also experimenting with quantum computing and battery chemistry.
The IonQ-Hyundai team plan to research battery charge and discharge cycles, durability, capacity, and safety. Improvements in these areas will result in batteries with improved performance and safety and an extended range.
Peter Chapman, President and CEO of IonQ, is quoted on the joint press release as saying: “Battery efficiency is one of the most promising emerging areas where quantum computing can make a difference. We are thrilled to be working with Hyundai Motor Company on this project to make EVs a primary mode of transportation across the globe.”
The International Energy Agency estimates that almost 15 million electric vehicles will be sold in 2025 growing to over 25 million sales in 2030.
During that time frame, Hyundai projects it will sell 560,000 electric vehicles annually and become one of the top three electric vehicle manufacturers by 2025.
Quantum computing has made significant progress with chemical simulations over the past five years. Although today’s quantum machines are still in the prototype phase, it is expected that future IonQ quantum computers will have the means to perform scalable and accurate battery simulations far beyond the capability of classical supercomputers.
At present, it is difficult to calculate molecular energy on today’s intermediate quantum computers because they use error-prone, low fidelity qubits. When errors occur in quantum circuits during computation, there are no suitable methods to correct them.
Decomposition of a molecule
Despite these limitations, quantum scientists have found a way to perform chemical simulations on today's quantum computers using a small number of qubits, shallow quantum circuits, error mitigation, and classical computers.
Computer programmers know that a large problem is much harder to solve than a small one. By breaking a large problem into more manageable sub-problems, the big problem becomes easier to solve.
Quantum scientists have demonstrated a similar solution on IonQ’s trapped-ion quantum computer called “problem decomposition.” Instead of needing a quantum computer with thousands of qubits, decomposition reduces the amount of quantum resources needed to simulate large molecular systems while still maintaining the needed accuracy.
This allows large molecular simulations to be run as small sub-problems on today’s near-term quantum hardware that has limited capabilities. According to IonQ, problem decomposition reduces the number of qubits needed by tenfold.
“The technique we are developing with Hyundai can be readily applied to other molecules with similar levels of complexity,” Dr. Kim said. “Over the coming years, we are excited to develop quantum computers that can handle simulations of increasing complexity, providing even more value to our customers.”
So, how many qubits would it take to simulate a typical molecular compound without breaking it into smaller problems? According to a recent research paper such a computation would require over 2000 qubits.
Unfortunately, an error-corrected quantum computer of that size probably won’t be available for another five to ten years. In the meantime, as incremental quantum improvements occur and error-corrected high-quality qubits become available, problem reduction can still reduce qubit requirements for larger chemistry simulations and continue to extend the reach of quantum computation in the coming years.
Dr. Kim summed up quantum chemistry this way: “The holy grail of quantum chemistry will be reached when we begin to perform reasonably complex calculations that challenge the capability of classical computers.”
- In October 2021, IonQ became the first pure play quantum company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Its most recent announcement was related to a new and advanced quantum architecture that will eventually allow its trapped-ion quantum computer to significantly scale up the number of logical qubits.
- Here is the link to the early 2019 paper describing how the NSF, Duke, UMD, and IonQ scientists calculated the energy of the water molecule in its lowest state.
- It’s still early in quantum computing to pick a technology that ultimately will be the best choice to build error-free quantum systems capable of using multi-millions of qubits to solve world-changing problems. The technology that ultimately performs at that level may not even be in use today.
- Scaling to millions of logical qubits is still many years away for all gate-based quantum computers.
- Quantum qubits are fragile and susceptible to errors caused by interaction with their environment. Error correction is a subject of serious research by almost every quantum company. It will not be possible to scale quantum computers to large numbers of qubits until workable error correction has been developed. I expect that significant progress will be made in 2022.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.