Quantum computers could excel in modeling chemical reactions

Quantum computers would likely outperform conventional computers in simulating chemical reactions involving more than four atoms, according to scientists at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Haverford College. Such improved ability to model and predict complex chemical reactions could revolutionize drug design and materials science, among other fields.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe “software” that could simulate chemical reactions on quantum computers, an ultra-modern technology that relies on quantum mechanical phenomena, such as entanglement, interference, and superposition. Quantum computing has been heralded for its potential to solve certain types of problems that are impossible for conventional computers to crack.

“There is a fundamental problem with simulating quantum systems — such as chemical reactions — on conventional computers,” says Alán Aspuru-Guzik, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “As the size of a system grows, the computational resources required to simulate it grow exponentially. For example, it might take one day to simulate a reaction involving 10 atoms, two days for 11 atoms, four days for 12 atoms, eight days for 13 atoms, and so on. Before long, this would exhaust the world’s computational power.”

Unlike a conventional computer, Aspuru-Guzik and his colleagues say, a quantum computer could complete the steps necessary to simulate a chemical reaction in a time that doesn’t increase exponentially with the reaction’s complexity.

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