Slowing Down Chemical Reactions: New Research from the University of Sydney
One of the most discussed potential applications for the future of quantum computing is chemistry and drug design. Experts speculate that quantum computers can help simulate drug trials and model chemical reactions with extra precision. New research from the University of Sydney in Australia reveals some of the first advancements in quantum computing for chemistry, as researchers used a quantum computer to slow down a chemical reaction by 100 billion times, being able to observe a critical process as a result. Their findings, published in Nature Chemistry, suggest that this process could be used to analyze other chemical reactions with unprecedented precision.
When slowing down the reaction, the scientists were able to observe an interference pattern caused by a single atom being influenced by a structure known as a “conical intersection.” In chemistry, this geometric shape is rather common and can influence important processes in chemistry, such as photosynthesis in plants.
For decades, researchers have been working to visualize conical intersections and other geometry processes with little success.
To overcome this problem, the University of Sydney researchers used a trapped-ion quantum computer to map out the chemical reaction and then slow it down by a significant factor. “In nature, the whole process is over within femtoseconds,” explained researcher Olaya Agudelo, from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemistry, in a recent press release. “That’s a billionth of a millionth—or one quadrillionth—of a second. Using our quantum computer, we built a system that allowed us to slow down the chemical dynamics from femtoseconds to milliseconds. This allowed us to make meaningful observations and measurements.”
The quantum computer used for this experiment belongs to the Quantum Control Laboratory, run by Dr. Michael Biercuk, a professor at the University of Sydney and the founder of Q-CTRL, a quantum computing start-up. By teaming up with researchers in the School of Chemistry, the scientists were able to observe the signatures of conical intersections like never before.
“This is a fantastic collaboration between chemistry theorists and experimental quantum physicists,” said Dr. Ting Rei Tan, the lead researcher of the study, in the press release. “We are using a new approach in physics to tackle a long-standing problem in chemistry.”
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, quantum computing, and AI. Her work has been featured in Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica, and more.