Society 30/10/2021

Barcelona will be southern Europe's first quantum computing hub

The 60 million project will address the EU's lack of technological autonomy

4 min
The technological sovereignty of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, under scrutiny

BarcelonaThe Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) will build and coordinate the first quantum computing network of the State, a science that would allow to understand complex chemical reactions to give rise to new drugs, improve industrial batteries or optimise artificial intelligence algorithms for the world of finance, logistics or security. These are just some examples of the benefits that could be obtained from the production and use of quantum computing, a discipline little explored in Spain but strategic to manage phenomena that happen at a microscopic level and make multiple operations with a great impact on the resolution of real problems, especially in the industrial sectors.

As is already the case with the production of classical technology, the United States and China are almost single-handedly leaders in experimentation and exploitation in this field through a very powerful network of private companies. Until now, the countries of the rest of the world have been mere spectators and now Europe wants to sow the first seeds to be technologically sovereign and competitive with projects like this spanish hub, called Quantum Spain. In fact, it will be the first quantum computing ecosystem in southern Europe. "Now Europe's bet is to make its technology, to build in quantum supercomputing to stop being buyers and become producers of technology. We are optimistic because we woke up early, when quantum computing is still emerging and we have room to be competitive", explained on Friday the associate director of BSC, Josep M. Martorell.

Thus, the creation of this hub (financed entirely with European funds) aims to save the purchase of machinery from third countries and develop its own at the national level. A proposal that has been very well received by the Spanish government, which, through the Secretary of State for Digitalisation and Artificial Intelligence, plans to allocate up to 60 million euros in the coming years. On Tuesday, the council of ministers approved the award of a first grant of €22 million that will begin to be mobilised this year through the Spanish Supercomputing Network (RES). "We greatly value the support that the administration is giving us to develop a disruptive technology in our country. Going to buy the machinery is easier in the short term, but worse for the future", Martorell insisted.

It consumes like a fridge

Although 25 research centres with expertise in quantum located in 14 autonomous communities are participating in this project, the computer will be built and physically installed in the Torre Girona complex in Barcelona, behind the Pedralbes gardens, where the BSC works and where the most powerful supercomputer in Europe, the MareNostrum 4, is already located. The forecast of the authorities and the research centre itself is that by the end of 2022 the computer will be finished and the first chip with two cubits, which is the system that marks the power of the supercomputer, will have been assembled. And by 2025, when the construction process is expected to be completed, it is expected to reach twenty cubits. "The key to the project is the construction of a quantum computer for the entire Spanish computer network, based on superconducting circuit technology, which is currently one of the technologies that works best and which is exploited by powerful companies, such as Google subsidiaries", explained Alba Cervera, PhD in physics at the BSC, who has been chosen to coordinate the Quantum project throughout Spain.

This sophisticated machine, equipped with several chips, will work, surprisingly, inside a small cylinder, with a behaviour similar to that of a refrigerator, at -273 degrees Celsius. The quantum computer's processes are faster than classical computing and it uses much less energy because it only needs to be cooled down to operate it. "It consumes more like a refrigerator than a computer", says Cervera.

According to the researcher, the idea is not to have larger chips or more cubits (the basic unit in quantum computing), but "a realistic machine that works and is good" to create software. "We will be scaling the technology we use. We want to be the masters of this technology from a public centre, but we don't want very sophisticated machines that don't have any specific function", she said. In this sense, she said, we have to be clear that we should not use it for everything and that the Quantum can replace the MareNostrum or other supercomputers. "They are complementary because there are questions that we can already solve with classical science or by doing quantum physics simulations", the physicist said.

Job creation

The operations director of the BSC and coordinator of the RES, Sergi Girona, has defended that the goal is that the use of this computer is "for everyone", from researchers to users who are interested in it individually. This will be possible because a computer can be used remotely, regardless of its physical location. Girona has also detailed that it will be an external committee who will evaluate the different requests, decide which are the best and give them priority. "We expect a great demand", he said.

As in any ecosystem, the other major objective of the hub is the formation of critical mass, that is, people trained and educated in the use of quantum supercomputing who, in the future, will be able to meet the demands generated by this disruptive technology. In other words: to create specialised jobs. "It is such an emerging discipline that there are few people trained in it, so we have to look to the new generations", said Cervera, who believes that many companies already want to hire these profiles, but cannot find them. "These demands are already beginning to emerge and more will come, and the point is to create a critical mass already educated in our country", she added.