It’s not every day that the harsh “giga” world of mining and mineral refining interacts with the refined and metaphysical “nano” realm of quantum physics. Attorneys at Pillsbury and other law firms involved in both ventures rarely black out each other’s doors. But the currents are indeed converging today, as rare earths and related critical materials have been found to be uniquely suited to developments in quantum computing.
The whimsical theories and discoveries of particle physics have fascinated novelists and real scientists for decades. With the recent rapid exploration of quantum computing, some of these ideas are shifting from fantasy to practical application. Researchers and investors see a future where supercharged computers will break down barriers in industries like finance, automotive, energy, pharmaceuticals and many more. The quantum computing market is expected to grow by around 30% by 2029.
Quantum technology runs on the notoriously difficult to stabilize qubit. Unlike binary bits in classic physical components in computers and cellphones, qubits can operate in more than one state at a time (known as superposition) and they have the uncanny ability to remain connected to each other even when disconnected (known as entanglement). . These properties mean that the speed at which quantum computers can solve problems is virtually unlimited — that is, once science understands how to capitalize on its capabilities. An MIT article reports that an encryption problem previously thought to require billions of qubits can be solved with a much more manageable number.
But there’s a catch – quantum machines are finicky. They tend to like things still, still and cold, in some cases requiring a temperature around absolute zero or around -460 degrees Fahrenheit. The quantum computing process must be isolated and protected from “decoherence”. Noise in the system means that routines to check the answers consume enormous amounts of computation and energy.
Scientists are still working on the best ways to make quantum machines work in real scenarios. Regardless of the paths taken to get there, it seems a given that rare earth metals and other critical materials will prove to be essential building blocks.
Rare earths themselves were described in our previous post on their use in the energy transition. Each element exhibits subtle differences in charge characteristics that can be precisely isolated in the preparation, processing, and manufacturing process. This precision, in turn, can handle the other biggest challenges of this area – scalability and replication.
As scientists grapple with these mysteries, a number of techniques have emerged to tame otherwise loutish qubits, each with their own material needs. Some of the elements are household names, while others are generally known only as obscure boxes on the periodic table of chemistry classrooms.
Superconductivity: At a sufficiently low temperature, metals such as aluminum and niobium no longer offer any electrical resistance. This phenomenon makes them popular options for keeping finicky qubits stable in superconducting systems. Superconducting quantum computers are perhaps furthest along the road to usability, with tech companies heavily betting on the approach. For example, Rigetti Computing is making advances in quantum computers and the superconducting quantum processors that power them. Trapped Ions: Quantum computing with trapped ions is another well-established avenue to advance this technology. Here, ionized atoms from the rare earth ytterbium are converted into ions and then used as qubits. Such a system can remain in a certain quantum state for a long time. Photonics: Crystals of europium, another rare earth element, have opened doors to the world of photonic quantum computers, which essentially convert light into qubits. The researchers believe the material will be able to hold a high density of qubits in an identical and well-defined position. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has partnered with a photon-based company to build the first utility-scale quantum computer. Neutral Atoms: In addition to the rare earths, the alkali metal element rubidium plays a role in the calculation of neutral atoms. Even in the early stages of the study, scientists want to use a laser to control the quantum state of rubidium atoms.
As the world pushes for more mining and production of these diverse elements for energy and other purposes, they will play a surprising role in computer innovation. Lawyers familiar with quantum computing concepts will play a crucial role in pursuing intellectual property rights and expanding their use through licensing and commercialization. But the advocates developing sources, products and markets for rare earths and other critical materials will also be involved in the quantum leaps.