The Energy Problem and Quantum Computing: Has the Future Arrived?

By Miro Cafolla, Postgraduate and International Tutor. A part of the 2018/19 Café Scientifique Series.

For the 2018/19 Café Scientifique series, John’s hosted two brilliant talks (26th Nov, 2018 & 18th Feb, 2019) focusing on some of the biggest energy challenges facing humanity.

The first talk was “Pores for Thought:  Sustaining Oil Production Without Drilling More Holes”, and was delivered by Professor Chris Greenwell from the Department of Earth Sciences (Durham University). Professor Greenwell focused on why our society still needs oil in many different fields ranging from the energy sector to the pharmaceutical industry. He also highlighted the scientific challenges to extracting oil from an existing reservoir. This is especially important as we transition from a fossil fuel past to a clean energy future. Removing oil from the small pores present between the minerals in an oil reservoir and to “unstick” the oil from the mineral surfaces. In trying to achieve this, it is fundamental to work across size scales and disciplines to understand how to unlock the strongly held oil and maximise the production from the UK’s North Sea reservoirs.

The talk gave rise to a stimulating conversation and debate with representatives of Transition Durham stating the need for renewable resources to completely substitute oil-based ones. It was a great opportunity to constructively discuss on a very hot topic showing the true spirit of John’s: we do foster and encourage independent thinking and respect for each other’s’ opinions.

This also definitely helped us to better appreciate the importance of saving energy consumption in our society. Considering data storage is expected to use one fifth of global electricity by 2025, it is crucial to develop more efficient computing systems. This led us to the second talk by Professor Ifan Hughes (Department of Physics, Durham University): “Quantum computing, has the future arrived?”

Professor Hughes delivered an inspiring and mind-blowing talk on quantum mechanics and its technological applications so as to realise quantum computers. He gave a flavour of one of the most exciting questions in contemporary physics: ‘Can we exploit the weirdness of quantum mechanics?’ ‘What has spooky action at a distance got to do with our everyday lives?’

The talk started highlighting how, at the molecular scale, Newtonian mechanics tends to fail to accurately describe any natural phenomena. Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory with a rigorous mathematical formulation which allows us to unravel the very deep mysteries of our universe.

Professor Hughes showed that in the “quantum world” our usual understanding of the world does not hold true any world and magic things may happen. This is the case of the so-called entangled states when the behaviour of a particle cannot be described independently of the state of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

Entangled states of atoms trapped by laser beams are currently under investigation by many research groups in the world so as to design efficient and powerful quantum computers. Quantum computers would definitely enhance the accuracy and precision of any simulations of the world around us. This will turn into reality one of the most famous predictions by the Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman stating that if our world is written according to the laws of quantum mechanics we need quantum computers to study it. Quantum computers will also contribute to significantly decrease the current energy consumption due to electronic data storage.

Overall, the talks made science accessible to everyone, and were an invaluable opportunity to understand complex scientific concepts in an accessible and friendly way.

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