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Solving the most enduring problems: how quantum computing might transform the built environment

Existing ‘classical’ computing, while incredibly powerful, has certain natural limits. There are constraints to how fast computations can be performed, or the level of complexity to the mathematical problems they attempt to solve.

Quantum computing takes advantage of aspects of quantum physical effects, to produce processors that go beyond zeros and ones, radically increasing the power, speed and sophistication of the calculations they can carry out.

As quantum computers are now maturing rapidly from ‘interesting theory’ to ‘actual technology’, it’s a good time to look at how they might transform longstanding problems faced by engineers and designers across the built environment.

New, low carbon materials

Quantum computers are far from the current semiconductor technology that’s typified the rest of the digital revolution, and are best understood as niche but powerful tools, likely to be most valuable in research settings. One such context is materials science, an increasingly important area for built environment practitioners, given the sector’s eagerness to find sustainable alternatives to the highly carbon intensive practices and resources presently used in our buildings and assets. The search for new, high performance, low emission materials involves some extremely hard maths and a lot of testing – this is the domain in which quantum computing becomes incredibly valuable.

Material optimisation can be very challenging for traditional, classical computers, due to the sheer number of variables involved. Researchers are looking to quantum computing to help select lighter, stronger, and better-insulating materials that require less carbon to be produced, thereby helping reduce emissions.

There are other pressing questions. What if we could somehow make concrete more sustainable? The world produces over 20 billion tons of concrete every year, accounting for 5% of global carbon emissions. While we already have examples of new polymer concretes, with properties superior to traditional concrete, their production costs are prohibitive for large scale applications. The expanded simulation capabilities of error-corrected quantum computers could help gain insights into less expensive production processes that would lead to a more widespread adoption of sustainable alternatives to concrete.

A new level of design exploration and optimisation

Design optimisation is another computing intensive area for designers and engineers – whether you’re attempting to improve the efficiency of an airplane or identifying the perfect location for a solar farm – these are issues traditional computers struggle with. Current software and hardware limitations mean that this becomes a time-and-resources-expensive process, sometimes leading to suboptimal designs and costly repeated processes of trial and error.

Strength design and structural analysis are central to the design of any structure, from bridges to buildings. Structural behaviour is typically modelled using differential equations that are subsequently solved numerically, and a large number of loading scenarios are simulated, such as earthquakes or wind loads. Due to the large choice of combinations of loading scenarios, geometries, and configurations, seeking a truly optimal design is a highly combinatorial, iterative, and computationally intensive problem that is prohibitively expensive on classical computers but could be accelerated significantly by a quantum computer.

Calculations that support energy decarbonisation

The transition to renewable energy has to accelerate if our net zero goals are to be achieved. At present, optimal development of new energy infrastructure is hampered by the high computational cost at national and global scales. Quantum computing could make this significantly more cost effective. Researchers at Cornell University have applied QC to the search for optimum locations for solar or wind power farms, to minimise facility opening and transportation costs for given energy demand and resource availability. In their study, a single traditional computer took more than 11 hours to conduct assessments of 14 facilities, while an early quantum machine from D-Wave completed the same task in just 16 minutes.

In another part of the energy network’s operations, quantum computing could drastically improve our ability to manage the operation of the smart grids that renewable energy depends on. Predicting demand and ensuring network stability are growing priorities for network operators. Instead of just predicting demand at the meter level, quantum computers could predict and manage demand at the device level. This is especially significant given the introduction of fluctuations in the grid due to a wider mix of renewable energy sources and new demand vectors, like the growth in electric vehicles.

It’s exciting to see the energy industry already investing deeply in quantum computing to tackle the network level operational challenges the sector faces. Other utilities, like water, are likely to be next to explore the technology’s potential.

Early days… but a bright future

As our new report on quantum computing makes clear, although much has been achieved there’s still a long way to go before the sector becomes a mainstream. One thing is clear – the technology’s potential to remove limitations to the modelling and exploration we habitually carry out, will enable incredible new levels of creativity, rigour and insight. For the built environment sector, it will be a chance to reach for bigger and more ambitious goals.