Microsoft utilizes Azure Quantum Elements in operations

Microsoft today announced that it has worked with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to use its Azure Quantum Elements service to whittle down millions of potential new battery materials to only a few — with one of them now in the prototype stage. Now, before you get too excited about the ‘quantum’ part of ‘Azure Quantum Elements’ (and why wouldn’t you — it’s in the name, after all), let’s get this out of the way first: no quantum computer was used in this project. Azure Quantum Elements, which launched last summer, combines AI and traditional high-performance computing (HPC) techniques into what is essentially a workbench for scientific computing, with the promise of providing access to Microsoft’s quantum supercomputer in the future. Krysta Svore, who leads Microsoft Quantum, told me that the overall idea here was to see how far the team could push what is currently available in Azure Quantum Elements (AQE) — and especially the AI accelerator — to advance materials discovery. And while the quantum computing community continues to push the state of the art ahead at a steady pace, we’re still at least a few years away from seeing a quantum computer that is actually useful.

Microsoft has announced a groundbreaking collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) utilizing their Azure Quantum Elements service. The goal? To sift through millions of prospective new battery materials and narrow them down to only a select few – with one of these materials now in the prototype stage.

Before you get too carried away with the ‘quantum’ aspect of ‘Azure Quantum Elements’ (and why wouldn’t you – it’s right in the name), let’s address this first: no quantum computer was utilized in this project. Azure Quantum Elements, which was launched last summer, combines AI and traditional high-performance computing (HPC) techniques to create a workbench for scientific computing, with the potential to provide access to Microsoft’s quantum supercomputer in the future. While qubits weren’t used for this particular project, the main goal is to bring all of these technologies together over time.

“The overall idea here was to see just how far we could push what is currently available in Azure Quantum Elements (AQE) – especially the AI accelerator – to advance materials discovery,” explained Krysta Svore, head of Microsoft Quantum.

Using AQE, researchers at PNNL were able to analyze 32 million inorganic materials and select 18 potential candidates for their battery project. Initially, the teams utilized AQE’s AI models to narrow down the pool to approximately 500,000 candidates. Then, using existing HPC techniques, they were able to identify those 18 most promising candidates to focus on. This process would typically take years, but with the help of AQE, the researchers were able to accomplish it in just 18 months.

“The intersection of AI, cloud, and high-performance computing, combined with human scientists, is critical in accelerating scientific discoveries,” stated Tony Peurrung, PNNL Deputy Director for Science and Technology. “Our partnership with Microsoft is focused on making AI more accessible to scientists. We see the potential for AI to uncover unconventional or unexpected materials or methods that are worth exploring. This is just the starting point on what is sure to be an exciting journey to speed up the pace of scientific advancement.”

Many quantum computing enthusiasts anticipate that their machines will excel in solving challenges within chemistry and material science. Despite the consistent progress made in the quantum computing community, we are still a few years away from a quantum computer that is truly functional. After all, we are currently in what’s known as the ‘noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) era’. Svore is confidently optimistic, however, that Microsoft will deliver on their plan to produce a quantum supercomputer using their Majorana-based qubits within the next decade.

For now, it’s important to keep in mind that this project involves genuine science – even though it may come across as a mere PR initiative, given how far we still have to go before quantum computing becomes an integral part of the process.

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Kira Kim

Kira Kim is a science journalist with a background in biology and a passion for environmental issues. She is known for her clear and concise writing, as well as her ability to bring complex scientific concepts to life for a general audience.

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