The oil and gas industry aims to take a leap with quantum computing

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The oil and gas industry analyses data with software and complex algorithms to determine everything from future drilling sites to optimal operating conditions for pipelines. Today’s computer systems can accomplish remarkable things, but the tasks we set for them are pushing them to the limits. We need to be able to work with larger data sets and get faster results.

That’s why we have been researching quantum computing, which is set to be the next leap forward in computing capability. We expect these computers, which work in a whole new way, to be much faster than the ones we currently use, and their capabilities can transform supply chains, logistics, extraction, processing and many more aspects of our business.

For example, a quantum computer could be used to identify the optimal solution for lowering CO2 intensity at hydrocarbon facilities. It requires analysing chemical compounds more quickly, using more data, than today’s computers.

There is a lot to be done to reach that point, which is why we are developing expertise in the topic and partnering with experts around the globe. We need to make the technology work reliably at scale, and doing that means grasping some challenging concepts.

Explaining quantum computing

Quantum computing is not easy to understand. For the last 70 years or so, we have been relying on what is known as “classical computing.” These are computers that store information as bits, which are either “off,” represented by a zero, or “on,” represented by a one. Huge numbers of these bits can be combined to represent incredibly complex data.

In contrast, the fundamental building block of quantum computing is the qubit, which can be both on and off at the same time. That implausible-sounding situation is made possible by superposition, a fundamental concept of quantum physics. Qubits are the key to a major benefit of quantum computing: its power can be expanded exponentially, unlocking enormous capacity.

Moving beyond theory

However, quantum computing is not without complications. Classical computing is “deterministic,” meaning the same input — for example, a machine learning algorithm — will always give the same output.

That is not the case for quantum computing, which deals with probability. It means we cannot predict with certainty the result of a computation in advance. That doesn’t mean the result is random; quantum physics follows laws, but its outcomes can only be assigned a probability. Therefore, a quantum algorithm must be engineered to increase the probability of the desired result.

That uncertainty is partly why Aramco is focused so much on the research stage of quantum computing. There is a lot of finetuning to be done to take concepts that work well theoretically and apply them in everyday use.

The problem is exacerbated by the instability of quantum computing hardware. There are several ways to create qubits, such as using ions, electrons or photons — all different types of particles that can be manipulated for computing. But these must be kept stable. Some require massive cooling, and others are sensitive to background noise, vibrations or light.

Localising technology and building skills and knowledge

Solving these problems requires expertise, which is why we have already begun upskilling our staff and developing new competencies with our Quantum Computing Initiative. Working with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, in Dhahran, we have established the Quantum Computing Chair to develop research and share knowledge with the next generation.

Realising the importance of technology, we have invested in Pasqal, a promising startup company, to localize technology in the Kingdom. As a result, by 2025, the first local quantum machine is expected to be available to serve Aramco and Saudi Arabia through Quantum Computing as a Service (QCaaS).

Furthermore, we are also working with IBM on a strategic collaboration to establish an Innovation Hub in Riyadh where quantum computing is planned to be one of the focus areas. And we are exploring quantum-based machine learning with a company that specializes in a special type of quantum computing using neutral atoms. The advantage of this approach is that it works without the need for massive cooling.

Another area we are keeping a close eye on is cybersecurity. Quantum computers could potentially be powerful enough to bypass cybersecurity controls on which much of the internet relies — and do so incredibly quickly. We are researching whether new cybersecurity techniques will be needed and what they might be. The fruits of this research are still several years away, but the potential is huge.

Quantum computing could transform not just our industry but all industries. For Aramco, it is one of several areas we are focusing on in our work to advance the digital solutions of tomorrow.


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