Atom Computing, NREL Explore Quantum Computing for Energy Grid Management

By John Russell

July 20, 2023

Atom Computing, a pioneer in the use of neutral atoms for quantum computing, will collaborate with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to explore how quantum computing can help optimize electric grid operations.

The announcement was made at this week’s IEEE Power and Energy Society meeting being held in Orlando. At the meeting, NREL researchers demonstrated how they incorporated Atom Computing’s atomic array quantum computing technologies into the lab’s Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) research platform and its hardware-in-the-loop (PHIL) testing to create a first-of-a-kind “quantum-in-the-loop” capability that can run certain types of optimization problems on a quantum computer.

This is an important step for Atom Computing, which has developed a prototype 100-qubit device (Phoenix) using neutral atom arrays. The company, based in Berkeley CA, with an R&D facility in Boulder CO, expects to introduce commercially available versions of its system next year and said it will provide more detail on their characteristics sometime this fall. The new collaboration with NREL provides a high-profile partner.

Rob Hovsapian, a research advisor at NREL, is quoted in the official announcement, “Electric grids are increasingly complex as we add new power generation resources such as wind and solar, electric vehicle charging, sensors and other devices. We are reaching the point where electric grids have more inputs and outputs than what our classical computing models can handle. By incorporating quantum computing into our testing platform, we can begin exploring how this technology could help solve certain problems.”

Optimization problems such as managing supply chains, devising more efficient transportation routes, and improving electric grid and telecommunications networks are considered among the “killer applications” for quantum computing. These are large-scale problems with numerous factors and variables involved, which makes them well suited for quantum computers and the way in which they run calculations.

Rob Hays – CEO & President, Atom Computing

In a briefing with HPCwire, Atom Computing CEO Rob Hays said, “The NREL laboratory we’re working with is in their Flatirons campus, which is actually just down the street from our R&D facility in Boulder, Colorado. So there’s proximity, right, and we readily meet face to face. There’s also a lot of connective tissue and relationships between people in the quantum and physics and national labs ecosystem in the Colorado area.

“Until now, NREL had not been able to connect into a QPU. They came to us and proposed collaboration of several months ago, and we’ve been working this year on connecting our quantum computing platform, software and hardware stack into their ARIES platform. What we’ve done [so far] is that integration, sat down and outlined some of the test cases, and started looking at algorithms and to figure out how we would actually implement this.”

NREL’s ARIES system is impressive on its own. Powered by an 8-petaflops supercomputer (Eagle), it serves as simulation platform to explore managing power loads up to ~20 megawatts. Atom Computing’s QPU will be incorporated as external accelerator.

October 19, 2022 – Overall aerial view of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Flatirons Campus looking northwest. In the middle ground is the the Grid Integration Research Pads. The campus is the site of the ARIES project. (Photo by Josh Bauer / Bryan Bechtold / NREL)

Hays said, “The primary workflow is in their classical system, the ARIE platform. Now, similar to how they could offload to any kind of an AI processor and GPU, they could offload to our QPU. So, it is a remote interface. They’re basically connected in with our API’s, and our compiler stack and all the tool suites that they need in order to go program the system. They’re up and running on that.”

Initially, NREL and Atom Computing are exploring how quantum computing can improve decision making on the re-routing of power between feeder lines that carry electricity from a substation to a local or regional service area in the event of switch or line downtime.

“Right now, operators primarily rely on their own experience to make this decision,” Hovsapian said. “This works but it doesn’t necessarily result in an optimal solution. We are evaluating how a quantum computer can provide better data to make these decisions.” Hays called the project an important example of how private industry and national laboratories can collaborate on quantum computing technology and valuable use case development.

Recently, the neutral atom approach to quantum computing has been gaining traction. There are, of course, many competing qubit types including, for example, superconducting, trapped ion, photonic, quantum dots, diamond-NV centers, etc. They all have strengths and weaknesses.

By way of background, here’s a description taken from an earlier HPCwire article:

Broadly, neutral atom qubit technology shares much with trapped ion technology — except, obviously, the atoms aren’t charged. Instead of confining ions with electromagnetic forces, neutral atom approaches use light to trap atoms and hold them in position. The qubits are the atoms whose nuclear magnetic spin states (levels) are manipulated to set the qubit state. Atom has written a recent paper (Assembly and coherent control of a register of nuclear spin qubits) describing its approach.

Ben Bloom (Atom Computing founder, now CTO) said, “We use atoms in the second column of the periodic table (alkaline earth metals). All those atoms share properties. We use strontium, but it doesn’t actually have to have been strontium, it could have been anyone in that column. Similar to trapped ion technology, we capture single atoms, and we optically trapped them. We create this optical trapping landscape with lasers. The nice thing about this is every atom you trap and you put in those light traps is exactly the same. The coherence times you can make are really, really long. It was kind of only theorized you could create them that long, but now we’ve shown that you can create them that long.”

Atom Computing has steadily progressed. After doing a $15M series A round in 2021, it raised another $60M in a series B round completed at the end of 2022.

Hays provided a brief progress report:

“As you might recall, we had a prototype that we built a couple years ago in Berkeley, California, a 100-qubit prototype. We continue to operate that system and we do a lot of these research collaborations around that system. In the meantime, we raised a series B, and used that money to open our Boulder R&D facility, which opened officially about a year ago. In that facility, we’ve built two commercial systems that basically prove we can scale up the technology.  So the reason that neutral atoms as a modality is really interesting is that it can scale much more quickly than superconducting and trapped ions,” said Hays.

“In these products that we’re building in Boulder, we’re proving that we can scale up the technology quite quickly. We’ll make announcements later, like late summer and early fall, that disclose a little bit more about the specs of those products. These are the products that we’ll bring to market as commercial systems. All of our engagements right now with partners and customers are done just privately. We will make these systems available publicly next year. Frankly, the reason we were waiting was because the prototype system isn’t all that differentiated versus products that are already out there [and available] through Amazon, or Google, etc. But once we’ve scaled up the systems, they will be clearly differentiated by size, and some of the other capabilities, coherence and other specs,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Atom Computing hopes to translate its work with NREL into commercial offering, said Hays. The company already has projects with “some of the telco providers around the world,” which Hays said have very similar problem statements.

Stay tuned.

Feature Image: Photo of Atom Computing’s neutral atom-based quantum computing system. Credit: Atom Computing.

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