How quantum technology could change heavy industry


One of the biggest heavy engineering megatrends for 2023 is the burgeoning interest in harnessing quantum technology.

It’s early days, but large tech firms and start-ups alike are racing to create the next generation of quantum technologies — such as quantum computers — as interest grows in utilizing the potential of all things quantum to help heavy industry reduce emissions and increase efficiency.

Quantum technology is likely to transform multiple industries in multiple ways, from helping to develop new high-quality materials for catalysts or energy storage, to enabling satellite-free navigation systems or even discovering new carbon-free fuels. 

What are quantum technologies?

Quantum technologies refer to a broad range of applications, including quantum sensing, quantum computing and quantum security. These employ the principles of quantum mechanics — a theory that describes the movements of particles.

Quantum sensing, which uses quantum technologies for high-precision sensing and measurement by harnessing two fundamental concepts in quantum mechanics — superposition and entanglement — is projected to be a more than $500 million market by 2027.

Quantum computers are still at the experimental stage, but they are already exceptional at three main tasks. Firstly, they can perform some optimization calculations much faster than normal computers, which could lead to significant improvements in areas like logistics, finance, and transportation.

They can also simulate real systems using the laws of quantum physics, helping advance work with alloys, catalysts and energy storage materials.

Thirdly, quantum computers can improve machine learning algorithms, allowing for more accurate predictions and faster processing of large datasets, which is a potential benefit for almost any industry in the digital era.

Quantum technologies can find ways for heavy industry to boost efficiency and cut emissions
Quantum technologies can find ways for heavy industry to boost efficiency and cut emissions

How will quantum technologies impact industry?

Quantum technologies open up a world of possibilities for industry. In particular, quantum computers could have game-changing implications across multiple sectors

Quantum computing could help perfect supply chains and production processes in heavy industry, improve factory layouts and scheduling, reduce waste and energy consumption, and make logistics and transportation more efficient.

While we wait for quantum computers, the potential use cases are mounting  up, as businesses seek to understand how they can harness the problem-solving potential.

Quantum technologies will unleash innovation across most sectors, but they are of particular interest in two areas: materials development and natural resources exploration, and security.

Materials development and natural resource exploration

Quantum computers can simulate and optimize the properties of new materials at a speed and level of complexity that far surpasses that of traditional computers.

In the future, sectors such as the cement industry may have the chance to switch raw materials for alternatives that can be discovered and tested much faster than before. 

The International Energy Agency says the main ingredient in cement, known as clinker, is the main reason why the industry’s CO2 emissions have been rising in recent years. Finding an alternative to clinker would be a key step in cement’s decarbonization journey. 

Quantum computing could even lead to the invention of new solutions to help decarbonize a wider range of industries: improving electric batteries for vehicles, developing better renewable solar cells, finding a faster way to bring down the cost of hydrogen production.

Lower-emission alternatives for cement-binding clinker could be discovered using quantum technologies
Lower-emission alternatives for cement-binding clinker could be discovered using quantum technologies

Natural resource exploration and exploitation could be transformed too. The higher capabilities in optimization calculations of quantum computers means they could help in the search for new energy resources by perfecting exploration and extraction processes, or work to improve the production and distribution of energy resources, redefining supply chain efficiency.

The security conundrum

However, there is also a downside to this exciting new technology. The ability of quantum computers to factor large numbers means they can potentially break current cryptography and be used for codebreaking, surveillance or other malicious purposes, posing new challenges for cybersecurity and defense. 

Yet, they are simultaneously the solution to many of these potential problems. Quantum security — which leverages the properties of quantum mechanics to enhance data and communication security — can protect against these potential threats.

The ability of quantum computers to factor large numbers has been a recent point of focus for the US and its guidance to the federal government to adopt technology that protects it from quantum decryption.

Any sensitive data — be that medical records, bank details or financial records — is at risk of security breaches, as many cryptographic methods rely on the difficulty of solving mathematical problems that quantum computers could crack very quickly.

However, quantum security can offer protection from decryption, with quantum-resistant cryptography enabling the development of new security protocols that leverage quantum properties, such as quantum key distribution, for more secure communication. 

Quantum technology could help develop alternative navigation systems that do not rely on satellites
Quantum technology could help develop alternative navigation systems that do not rely on satellites

What next for quantum and industry?

Quantum technology is coming, and preparations are already underway. The EU has an initiative in place so that it can roll out quantum communication infrastructure across the whole of the EU as the foundations for global quantum networks emerge, leading to the connection of quantum technologies all over the world.

Given their capabilities, quantum technologies offer extraordinary potential, but developers have only just scratched the surface. Now it is the turn of the private sector to innovate.

As with any new technology, there are still many questions to be answered and challenges to overcome. But with continued research and investment, the future partnership of quantum technology and industry looks bright.

Discover more about 10 heavy engineering trends

Ewan Thomson

Ewan Thomson

Ewan has been a journalist and editor for over 15 years, covering commodities in the energy industry, as well as communications, agriculture, oil and textiles markets.

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