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    Critical Thought

    Critical thoughts on quantum technologies

    Scientists Harness Quantum Device to Manipulate Chemical Reactions

    ByByron Bekker

    Nov 22, 2023
    Scientists Harness Quantum Device to Manipulate Chemical Reactions

    Scientists at the University of Sydney have achieved a groundbreaking advancement in the field of chemical reactions by utilizing a quantum computer to control and study a crucial process, which they managed to slow down by a staggering factor of 100 billion times.

    Lead researcher Vanessa Olaya Agudelo explains, “By gaining a deeper understanding of these fundamental processes within and between molecules, we can unlock a wealth of possibilities in various domains including materials science, drug design, and solar energy harvesting. Moreover, it has the potential to enhance other processes that rely on light-molecule interactions, such as the formation of smog or the depletion of the ozone layer.”

    The research team focused on observing the interference pattern of a single atom caused by a common chemical structure known as a “conical intersection.” These intersections play a critical role in fast photochemical processes like human vision and photosynthesis. For decades, chemists have attempted to directly observe these geometric phenomena in chemical dynamics, but the rapid timescales involved have made it immensely challenging.

    To overcome this obstacle, quantum researchers from the School of Physics and the School of Chemistry devised an innovative experiment that harnessed a trapped-ion quantum computer in a completely novel manner. This enabled them to effectively map and analyze the complex problem using a relatively compact quantum device, ultimately slowing down the process by a factor of 100 billion.

    The findings of their research have been published in the esteemed journal Nature Chemistry.

    “In nature, these processes occur within femtoseconds,” says Olaya Agudelo. “That is equivalent to one quadrillionth of a second. By leveraging our quantum computer, we have engineered a system that enables us to extend the timescale of chemical dynamics from femtoseconds to milliseconds. This has opened up new possibilities for meaningful observations and measurements, which were previously unattainable.”

    Dr. Christophe Valahu, another lead author of the study from the School of Physics, compares their achievement to studying the airflow around an airplane wing in a wind tunnel. “Our experiment was not a digital approximation of the process,” he clarifies. “It was a direct observation of quantum dynamics at a pace that was observable and measurable.”

    When it comes to photochemical reactions like photosynthesis, where plants convert energy from the Sun, molecules rapidly transfer energy, forming areas of interaction known as conical intersections. The current study managed to slow down the dynamics within the quantum computer and exposed distinct characteristics associated with conical intersections in photochemistry that were predicted but had never been seen before.

    Associate professor Ivan Kassal, a co-author and leader of the research team from the School of Chemistry and the University of Sydney Nano Institute, expresses his enthusiasm about the findings. He says, “This exciting breakthrough will greatly enhance our understanding of ultrafast dynamics and how molecules transform within the quickest timeframes possible. It is truly remarkable that we have access to the top-notch programmable quantum computer in the country to conduct these experiments here at the University of Sydney.”

    The experiment was conducted using the Quantum Control Laboratory’s quantum computer, belonging to professor Michael Biercuk, who is also the founder of the quantum startup, Q-CTRL. Dr. Ting Rei Tan led the experimental effort.

    Tan, a co-author of the study, remarks, “This is a remarkable collaboration between theoretical chemists and experimental physicists in the field of quantum physics. We are employing an innovative approach to address a long-standing challenge in chemistry.”

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):

    Q: What did the scientists at the University of Sydney achieve?
    A: The scientists used a quantum computer to slow down a significant chemical process by a factor of 100 billion times, allowing for direct observation and analysis.

    Q: How can this achievement impact various domains?
    A: Understanding the fundamental processes within molecules can lead to advancements in materials science, drug design, and solar energy harvesting. It can also contribute to the improvement of processes involving light-molecule interactions, such as smog formation and ozone layer depletion.

    Q: What are conical intersections?
    A: Conical intersections are common geometric structures in chemistry that are crucial for rapid photochemical processes like photosynthesis and human vision.

    Q: How did the research team overcome the challenge of rapid timescales?
    A: They used a trapped-ion quantum computer in a novel way, which allowed them to slow down the chemical dynamics and make meaningful observations and measurements.

    Q: Why is this achievement significant?
    A: It provides valuable insights into ultrafast dynamics and sheds light on how molecules transform within extremely short timeframes. This breakthrough contributes to a deeper understanding of chemical reactions and their applications.