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Jet Metal Corrosion Might Be the Next Use Case for Quantum Computing

Quantum Computing Power Explored to Prevent Metal Corrosion in Industry, Public Infrastructure, Other Tough Environmental Conditions

Jet Metal Corrosion Might Be the Next Use Case for Quantum Computing

Materials scientists and engineers have long been searching for new materials and designs that reduce or eliminate corrosion that destroys airplane components, from wings to fuselages, airframes, landing gear, controls, and more. In airplanes, corrosion is extremely dangerous because it can, high in the sky, cause critical parts to fail and endanger passengers and crew members. Similar danger from metal corrosion exists in manufacturing and chemical plants, refineries, bridges, skyscrapers, office buildings, and more, a circumstance that equally endangers employees, travelers, and passersby.

To battle aircraft corrosion at its source, where water in the atmosphere is continually attacking and weakening metal compounds, researchers from IBM and aircraft maker The Boeing Company are collaborating on broad research into how powerful quantum computing principles can support new capabilities to help solve this vexing problem.

IBM and Boeing explain the concept of using quantum computing to find fixes for jetliner corrosion in a recent post on the IBM Research Blog. It explores how scientists are attacking the issues using today’s quantum computing tools. So far, fully developed quantum computers are not yet ready for prime time, but as more advancements are developed, scientists are able to use their fledgling capabilities to conduct experiments that test possible answers.

As soon as I read the blog post, the gears in my brain started spinning and I imagined that this is the kind of revolutionary work that incredibly powerful quantum computers will be able to perform in the future, fulfilling the promise of this long-awaited technology. I believe that preventing metal corrosion could be the next big marketplace use case for quantum computing because the problem of corrosion is so pervasive across vehicles, buildings, infrastructure, industrial plants, and more.

What Is Metal Corrosion and How Can Quantum Computing Help Prevent It?

Metal corrosion is a chemical process caused by contact with moisture, chemicals, and other caustic substances in the environment, causing billions of dollars in damage every year to jets, buildings, bridges, and many other structures. Airlines, in particular, fight an ongoing costly war with corrosion on critical control parts in their fleets, all so they can keep their planes safely in the air.

Together, IBM and Boeing researchers are working to develop new quantum computing methods that study the chemical reactions that cause corrosion so that they can pursue the creation of new corrosion-resistant materials. The research team detailed the research in a 2023 article in Nature’s npj Quantum Information journal. Using their combined expertise, IBM and Boeing engineers developed two new techniques that use quantum simulations to model the corrosive process known as water reduction.

What Is Water Reduction in Metal Corrosion?

Whenever a metal surface gets wet from humidity, rainfall, or other environmental conditions, thin films form on the surface, creating corrosive electrolytes that begin to degrade the metal. As the surfaces dry out and then become wet again, the cycle continues these corrosive effects. Unless metal surfaces are treated with protective measures, they will corrode and break down over time.

Due to the importance of developing new materials that are more resistant to such damage than current barriers, I believe this work by IBM and The Being Company using quantum computing is huge. And because the research with quantum is focusing on water reduction at the molecular level, it could enable scientists to find answers to the core problem in corrosion.

Today’s classical computing hardware cannot handle mammoth computations for water reduction processes. Quantum computing, although still in development, could be used to model the processes needed to find the answers to these corrosion problems, the researchers wrote. Thus, researchers are using new methods for the exact and automated simplification of quantum circuits, which would significantly reduce the quantum resources required to run the simulations. The researchers say their circuit simplification method could also be applied to other uses beyond these corrosion simulation experiments.

In my opinion, these experiments are exciting because they might confirm that researchers can replace their slower, more crude, classical computing methods with the power of quantum computing, even if it so far is only modeling these capabilities.

What It Means: Fighting Metal Corrosion with IBM and Boeing

Scientists have been studying corrosion using tools such as density functional theory (DFT), which require a lot of inexact approximation to run on classical computing hardware. DFT is popular for research, but it is not always fully accurate in predicting chemical kinetics. What the IBM and Boeing scientists learned is that the accuracy of such computations rises with the introduction of quantum computing modeling, which is why the team continues to pursue this track.

To me, this work is driving new use case possibilities for quantum computing as it evolves. Researchers know that they do not have all the answers right now, but they are convinced that tomorrow’s fault-tolerant quantum computers will be able to perform such calculations and aid in this research.

This is why scientists pursue their fields of study and dream big dreams, I believe, all in the hope of one day finding the answers to the difficult problems of humanity.

Instead of simply waiting for those powerful quantum machines to come to fruition, researchers are using quantum theory and modeling to target the big questions today, working with the tools they already have on hand. This, to me, is inspiring and bodes well for the future dawn of mainstream quantum computers and computing. I look forward to tracking this progress over the next several years as IBM and Boeing continue their collaboration and as quantum machines eventually arrive for production computing, delivering new insights and new possibilities for the full scope of needs.

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