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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 computing hubs produce 200 million tons of CO2 annually and consume 2% of electricity worldwide, according to Accenture, which projects that figure will reach 8% by 2030. Aspen Global Change Institute adds that some of the world’s largest data centers use more than 100MW of power — enough to power about 80,000 U.S. households.
The data center as an energy drain became a hot topic in tech and political circles more than a decade ago. At the request of Congress in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed a report on server and data center energy use, costs, and efficiency opportunities.
This set off a green data center movement that gave rise to companies such as Verne Global, which created a hydroelectric- and geothermal-powered data center in Iceland. And after a Microsoft researcher wrote a paper proposing underwater data centers a few years later, Microsoft made a splash with an underwater data center that employed seawater for cooling. Meanwhile, Highlander recently signed an agreement to build a commercial underwater data center at Sanya, a coastal city in China.
Work to build more energy-efficient data centers continues at Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Intel and an array of other companies. Many green data center efforts focus primarily on using renewable energy sources to power and/or cool standard computing equipment. But in a world that continues to battle a global pandemic and has seen U.S. workers quitting their jobs at record rates, sustainability doesn’t get as much attention as it has in the past.
However, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reminded us, climate change is the “single biggest health threat facing humanity,” leading to extreme weather events, disruption of food systems and the spread of diseases. And quantum computing can help address that.
Quantum computing can help power carbon fixation, 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 painstaking trial-and-error experiments, quantum computers can efficiently simulate alternatives and find efficient methods to extract carbon dioxide and convert it into useful chemicals.
It’s also worth considering how the choice of computing equipment — today and in the future — will impact energy usage. And you may be surprised to learn that quantum computers can perform some calculations much faster using just a fraction of the energy used by classical computers.
Here’s why: A conventional data center computer may use billions of transistors. But with a quantum computer, you have hundreds — or, eventually, millions — of qubits (quantum bits). That means you only need enough energy to excite, or move around, millions of atoms instead of billions of transistors. And quantum computers can analyze massive data sets in parallel; whereas classical computers need to analyze them serially.
I’m not alone in the belief that quantum computers will be vastly more energy-efficient than supercomputers in certain computational problems. Published research by a team of experts from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Google, and Oak Ridge National Lab have 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 world’s previously unsolvable problems in such areas as drug discovery, electric vehicle battery innovation, and power grid optimization at a time when the world’s need for solutions is bigger than ever before.
The race is on for companies and countries to deploy quantum solutions to their advantage. But it’s important to remember that, when it comes to climate change, we’re all in this together. And we all stand to benefit from breakthroughs that quantum computing can enable. The fact that quantum computers require much less energy than conventional computers makes them even more valuable.
Nir Minerbi is co-founder and CEO of Classiq
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