Science and Technology

Quantum Computing: a new tool to investigate elementary particles

Researchers from Instituto Superior Técnico lead pioneering European project.

Is the study of the elementary particles that constitute the universe the new frontier of quantum computing? In the scientific community that investigates this area, it is believed that so.

To study the secrets of nature at the most fundamental level, scientists collide subatomic particles, such as protons or electrons. Each collision generates thousands of new particles, whose trajectory is measured by sensors around the point of collision. Identifying these particles is a huge data analysis challenge, which even today’s supercomputers have difficulty solving. And even collision simulations, performed before the experiment takes place, are an extremely demanding computational challenge. Indeed, these unprecedented challenges have led to the development of new ways of computing by CERN, such as grid computing, a gigantic worldwide network of computing centres to handle and store vast amounts of data in a distributed manner.

However, classical computers are already reaching their limit capacity for these studies of elementary particles. And with the future upgrade of CERN’s accelerator to higher energies in the coming years, these problems will tend to become intractable with classic computers.

But there may be a disruptive solution to these problems: quantum computing. This new form of computing, still incipient, explores the laws of Quantum Physics, to process a new type of bits, quantum bits – or, for short, qubits –, which may be in the state zero and one at the same time. This surprising and counter-intuitive property opens the door to solving extremely complex computational problems much faster. Problems that a classic computer would take many millions of years to solve can be solved in seconds in a quantum computer. Currently, there is an international race for the development of the first quantum processor faster than the best classical super-computers.

Instituto Superior Técnico, in Lisbon, is leading a new European project that aims to investigate the potential of quantum computing to simulate and analyse data from CERN’s particle collision experiments. Project QuantHEP – Quantum Computing Solutions for High-Energy Physics was one of the 12 projects that won the recent European QuantERA call, out of 85 competing projects.

Project QuantHEP is led by Prof. Yasser Omar, a specialist in quantum computing, from the  Mathematics Department of Instituto Superior Técnico, at the University of Lisbon, and coordinator of the Physics of Information and Quantum Technologies Group at the national research laboratory Instituto de Telecomunicações, in Portugal. The project’s component on elementary particle Physics is coordinated by Prof. João Seixas, from the Physics Department of the Instituto Superior Técnico and president of CeFEMA, a specialist in the area with vast experience in both theoretical and experimental fields. The project, with a budget of more than 600 thousand Euro, also involves Prof. Simone Montangero from the University of Padua, and INFN the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics, one of the pioneers in quantum simulation, and Prof. Andris Ambainis, from the University of Latvia, one of the world leaders in quantum algorithmic research.

Dr. Markus Hoffmann, Head of Google’s quantum computing partnerships group in Europe and Asia, said: “we are looking forward to support this outstanding team of top European researchers bringing quantum computing to one of the homes of quantum science.”

Prof. Yasser Omar, coordinator of QuantHEP, said: “This is a fascinating project! I had promised myself that I would not coordinate any more projects, but this idea was simply irresistible. It is the seventh European project that our Group has won in the last seven years. And we are eager to start exploring this very exciting new research front with our excellent project partners. Particle physics poses some of the toughest computational problems out there, and we want to find out how quantum computers can tackle them.”