Quantum computing promises to solve data center energy drain

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Data centers represent a massive drain on our world’s energy resources and are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. These IT hubs produce 200 million tonnes of CO2 per year and consume 2% of the world’s electricity, according to Accenture, which projects that figure will rise to 8% by 2030. The Aspen Global Change Institute adds that some of the world’s largest data centers use more than 100 MW of energy, enough to power about 80,000 US homes.

The data center as an energy drain became a hot topic in technology and political circles more than a decade ago. At the request of Congress in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced a report on energy consumption, costs, and efficiency opportunities for servers and data centers.

This sparked a green data center movement that spawned companies such as Verne Global, which established a hydroelectric and geothermal data center in Iceland. And after a Microsoft researcher wrote an article proposing underwater data centers a few years later, Microsoft caused a stir with an underwater data center that used seawater for cooling. Meanwhile, Highlander recently signed an agreement to build a commercial underwater data center in Sanya, a coastal city in China.

Work to build more energy-efficient data centers continues at Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Intel and a range of other companies. Many green data center efforts focus primarily on using renewable energy sources to power and/or cool standard IT equipment. But in a world that continues to grapple with a global pandemic and has seen American workers quitting their jobs at a record rate, sustainability isn’t getting as much attention as it once did.

However, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reminded us, climate change is the “greatest threat to the health of humanity”, leading to extreme weather events, the disruption of food systems and the spread of disease. And quantum computing can help solve this problem.

Quantum computing can help fuel carbon sequestration, the process of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by converting it into other useful compounds. Plants do this naturally, but quantum computers can help us discover synthetic catalytic processes. Instead of laborious trial-and-error experiments, quantum computers can effectively simulate alternatives and find efficient methods to extract carbon dioxide and convert it into useful chemicals.

Consideration should also be given to the impact of the choice of IT equipment, now and in the future, on energy consumption. And you might be surprised to learn that quantum computers can perform certain calculations much faster using only a fraction of the energy used by classical computers.

Here’s why: A conventional data center computer can use billions of transistors. But with a quantum computer, you have hundreds – even millions – of qubits (quantum bits). This means that you only need enough energy to excite or move millions of atoms instead of billions of transistors. And quantum computers can analyze massive data sets in parallel; whereas conventional computers have to analyze them in series.

I’m not alone in believing that quantum computers will be much more energy efficient than supercomputers in certain computational problems. Research published by a team of experts from NASA Ames Research Center, Google and Oak Ridge National Lab has demonstrated this benefit. In their analysis, the quantum computer used 0.002% of the energy used by a classical computer to perform the same task.

Quantum computing will help companies and researchers solve some of the previously unsolvable global problems in areas such as drug discovery, electric vehicle battery innovation and power grid optimization at a time when the global need of solutions is more important than ever.

The race is on for companies and countries to deploy quantum solutions to their advantage. But it is important to remember that when it comes to climate change, we are all affected. And we are all likely to benefit from the breakthroughs that quantum computing can enable. The fact that quantum computers require much less power than conventional computers makes them even more valuable.

Nir Minerbi is co-founder and CEO of Classic

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