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Hybrid quantum workflow offers potential for hydrogen fuel cell efficiency

BMW, Airbus and Quantinuum have collaborated on a project to simulate a reaction that could pave the way to more efficient hydrogen fuel cells

Researchers from Airbus and BMW have used Quantinuum’s H-series hardware and InQuanto quantum chemistry software to study catalysed oxidation reduction reaction, one of the most basic electrochemical processes.

The research said that a hybrid quantum-classical workflow could speed up future research using quantum computers to simulate quantum systems, focusing on the chemical reactions of catalysts in fuel cells.

In a technical paper, Applicability of quantum computing to oxygen reduction reaction simulations, the three companies report that they were able to model the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) on the surface of a platinum-based catalyst accurately. The ORR is the chemical reaction in the process that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water and electricity in a fuel cell. The researchers said this particular chemical reaction limits the efficiency of the fuel cell. The process, they said, is relatively slow, and requires a large amount of platinum catalyst.

BMW Group said approaching and accurately simulating one of the most fundamental electrochemical processes with a quantum computer marks a substantial step towards the sustainable energy transition.

“Circularity and sustainable mobility are putting us on a quest for new materials, to create more efficient products and shape the future premium user experience,” said Peter Lehnert, vice-president of research technologies at BMW Group. “Being able to simulate material properties to relevant chemical accuracy with the benefits from the accelerating quantum computing hardware is giving us just the right tools for more speed in innovation for this decisive domain.”

Isabell Gradert, vice-president of central research and technology at Airbus, said: “We can clearly envision the benefits of the study in our quest for sustainable and hydrogen-powered alternatives such as the ZEROe aircraft, which may operate on fuel cell engines. The study confirms that quantum computing is maturing at the scale we need for aviation.”

Airbus said hydrogen offers the potential as a fuel source for powering low-carbon aircraft. If it’s generated from renewable energy, hydrogen emits no CO2 when used for flying aircraft. The company has ambitions to develop the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft for market entry by 2035, and aims to start testing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell propulsion system onboard its ZEROe demonstrator aircraft in the next few years.

Read more about quantum computing

  • In this special edition of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Ilyas Khan, CEO of Quantinuum, discusses the quantum computing revolution.
  • Mainstream quantum computing may be years away, but some companies are finding ways to pilot the technology now, to see if it can deliver tangible business benefits.

Quantinuum said that modelling chemical reactions such as the ORR accurately is an intractable task for classical computers, due to the quantum properties of the chemical mechanisms involved, which is why there is a lot of interest in attaining a potential quantum advantage in the future.

The researchers said the demonstration shows the applicability of quantum computing in an industrial workflow. The three companies plan further collaboration to explore the use of quantum computing to address relevant industrial challenges.

Ilyas Khan, chief product officer at Quantinuum, said: “In this pioneering work, we demonstrate how to integrate quantum computing into the industrial workflows of two of the world’s most technologically advanced companies, tackling material science problems that are a prime target for progress using quantum computing.”

The research team hopes that understanding the ORR reaction provides insights that help them identify alternative materials that may improve the performance and reduce the production costs of fuel cells.

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