Quantum computing enlisted to improve EV batteries

IonQ and Hyundai Motor are collaborating to create new variational quantum eigensolver (VQE) methods for studying lithium compounds and chemical interactions within battery chemistry.

VQE is an algorithm for determining the set of values used to solve a given optimization problem. The algorithm uses the variational principle to calculate the base state energy of a Hamiltonian, or the rate of change over time in the condition of a dynamic physical system. The accuracy of conventional methods are constrained due to computational limitations.

The partners will develop a battery chemistry model that can run on a quantum computer that would be used to simulate the structure and energy of lithium oxide. The goal is enhancing the performance, cost and safety of lithium batteries.

Chemical simulation and computational acceleration provided via quantum computers are expected to significantly improve the quality of next-generation lithium-ion batteries, offering greater capacity and durability. Those attributes could make EVs more appealing to consumers.

IonQ CEO Peter Chapman said batteries remain the toughest engineering challenge in EV development, contributing to as much as half of the total production cost of an EV. Those high costs make EVs too expensive for most consumers. “Cheaper batteries would bring costs closer in line with combustion cars and help drive faster and deeper adoption in the automotive market,” Chapman said in an interview. “Better batteries would also serve to make EVs more appealing. Many of the most common reasons customers cite for not being ready to make the switch — limited range, slow charging, and limited battery lifetime — could be solved with improved battery materials.”

Electric vehicles use electric motors and a high-voltage, high-capacity battery pack as well as a variety of power management and powertrain technologies. Despite hefty sticker prices, EVs pollute less than conventional internal combustion vehicles. Still, true sustainability requires improved battery technology that reduces the strain on power grids, even becoming a grid component themselves. Future EVs will require advanced batteries based on more efficient materials that can replace cobalt to help reduce environmental impact while increasing range.

Quantum computers are naturally suited for modelling molecular behavior because both are systems governed by quantum mechanics,” Chapman said. “Simulation of the key compounds involved in batteries can help predict the outcome of chemical reactions, and potentially lead to new types of source material that save time, cost and effort for battery development….”

Quantum technology

Among the biggest challenges in building quantum computers is reducing error rates. Several methods are available for building a qubit, including IonQ’s trapped ion that provides a low error rate and high connectivity between qubits. IonQ’s quantum processor is powered by atoms in a 3D space and controlled through laser beams to ensure stability.

Qubit counting is increasingly regarded as the most relevant benchmark for assessing the power and capability of quantum processors. However, as the number of qubits continues to grow, a more accurate and reliable metric is needed. Indeed, fewer high-quality qubits can typically process more than many low-quality qubits, especially if they exhibit lower error rates.

Each qubit in a solid-state system is unique, very noisy and must operate in near isolation. That represents a disadvantage since, by definition, solid-state technology is not isolated. Hence, IonQ employs a laser cooling method that stabilizes atoms if the laser is tuned appropriately. Notably, IonQ’s procedure does not require refrigeration or sophisticated equipment, only a laser beam.

We’re using lasers to our advantage in a couple of different ways,” Chapman said. “Aside from allowing our system to operate at room temperature, lasers also enable us to customize our system and change the architecture to exactly what customers need. Our laser-controlling software is malleable and can be turned on and off. You can’t turn a physical metal wire on and off.”

The partnership announced this week is central to Hyundai’s Strategy 2025 ambitions that include selling 560,000 EVs annually while introducing more than 12 battery-EV models. Furthermore, because EVs play a crucial role in fulfilling global sustainability objectives, the alliance represents another step in tackling climate change.

To be fully sustainable, transportation must be electrified and supplemented with other measures such as extending the lifetime of EVs as a way to offset energy demand from auto manufacturing.

Lithium-ion cells that power most EVs are based on raw materials such as cobalt and other rare earth elements, the mining of which can have serious environmental impacts.

IonQ claims it can address many of these issues with quantum technology in areas such as battery efficiency and boosting the capacity of energy grids. IonQ’s computers have previously been used to demonstrate the simulation of large molecules, such as those found in fertilizer production.

As our hardware and algorithms mature, increasingly complex molecules and reactions can be simulated,” said Chapman. “We’re starting with lithium oxide, but in the future we may expand our sights to solid-state batteries, energy production in the form of better solar cells and more.

Beyond chemistry, we may also bring quantum to problems like autonomous driving, charging network distribution, logistics, [and] routing.”