Berkeley Lab receives millions from US Department of Energy to spur quantum computing research

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The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will receive $3 million in annual funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for research in quantum computing that could “solve some of science’s hardest problems,” according to a Berkeley Lab press release issued Tuesday.

The funding will be split between two Berkeley Lab teams: a hardware team and a software team. Funding for the software team is guaranteed for the next three years, while funding for the hardware team is guaranteed for the next five years. The renewal of this funding is dependent on the Department of Energy’s budget, according to Jonathan Carter, computing sciences area deputy at Berkeley Lab.

“It’s a new area for the Department of Energy,” Carter said. “It has great promise.”

Quantum computing is completely different from traditional computing, Carter said. While generic computers encode information in bits, with each bit representing a particular state, quantum computers process information through qubits, which can reflect multiple states at once.

Traditional computers process information in binary, with data represented by zeros and ones. Quantum mechanics, however, allows quantum computers to process any number between zero and one, according to Bert de Jong, head of the computational chemistry, materials and climate group at Berkeley Lab. Instead of processing data in series, quantum computers can process all of the data at once.

Carter said most people consider quantum computing a faster computing method, but he emphasized that it is much more elaborate than that. According to Carter, classical computing can be thought of as walking 50 steps of the same length — with every step, you go farther, but at the end, you only walk about 90 feet. Quantum computing, however, is like taking one 3-foot step, then a 9-foot step, then a 27-foot step and so on, Carter said. Carter called this a “geometric, exponential speed-up.”

Carter explained that quantum computing could be used in the future to understand complex scientific processes, such as fertilization processes. According to Carter, fertilization processes are still relatively obscure and energy-intensive because scientists do not know exactly how the nitrogenase catalyst — a prominent enzyme in the fertilization reaction — functions. With quantum computing, a simulation can be done to model the complicated process of a nitrogenase reaction, allowing scientists to understand how it functions and possibly discover a more energy-efficient catalyst.

The Berkeley Lab quantum computing hardware team will focus the allocation of its $1.5 million in annual funding on constructing a physical quantum computer. Meanwhile, the software team, led by de Jong, will use its annual $1.5 million in funding to construct algorithms and develop ways to program a quantum computer.

De Jong mentioned that his team is working with software companies such as IBM and Microsoft on this project and that he has high hopes for its success.

“I am confident that quantum computing will become a reality,” de Jong said.

Contact Rishabh Nijhawan at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @realRishNij.