Berkeley Lab

Keynote #1: Applications of emerging technology to challenges in chemistry

By Arkadeep Kumar

At the Molecular Foundry’s Annual User Meeting 2020, the Keynote speaker was Dr. Jeannette (Jamie) Garcia from IBM Almaden Research center. She introduced the diversity of research topics done at IBM Research, with researchers collaborating across the globe and time zones. She presented her research on two topics aimed at solving the grand challenges of the world (1) on reducing plastic waste and achieving sustainability by plastic recycling (2) on advances in  quantum computing.

Regarding plastic pollution, she brought the audience’s attention to the vast amount of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean, threatening marine life. She referred to recent scientific publications about how microplastics are entering water streams especially in urban areas in the U.S. and hence even in drinking water, which showed how plastic pollution is an immediate problem for all of us. She described her initial days at IBM working with Dr. Jim Hendrik about monomer recovery of plastic, which can make recycling better. Conventional recycling of plastic consists of mechanical recycling, which still creates some waste by-product and hence degrades the environment. Instead if chemically the plastics can be broken down into their component parts, or polymers are broken down into monomers- then the recycling can be more efficient and cleaner. Dr. Garcia explained the VolCAT selective digestion method of breaking down polyester polymers into monomers, which works even for plastic with dirt or paint, an example being plastic water bottles. She also mentioned designing materials with recycling in mind. Aligning with the topic of her talk, she mentioned using Emergent technologies such as AI, cloud, and quantum computing, for tackling the plastic waste problems in Africa – where a lot of plastic waste cannot be collected and hence cannot be recycled.

Next, Dr. Garcia spoke about quantum computing research at IBM, with the recent announcement of reaching quantum volume 64! She mentioned the trend of doubling quantum volume every year, and introduced Gambetta’s law graph, similar to Moore’s law in semiconductors. She explained that increasing the quantum volume helps in increasing the number of qubits associated, and hence the speed of quantum computing applications. She explained how she got excited about quantum computing a few years back, which could solve unsolved problems of chemistry. Quantum computing can help solve some of the hardest and memory intensive problems in business and science. She showed how recent progress in quantum computing helps in researchers doing theoretical calculation in chemistry to match experimental observations, with one example about researching the excited states in OLED, and other examples about battery chemistry, energy storage and materials design. In particular for chemistry, error-corrected algorithms in quantum chemistry can help in more accurate calculations of chemical-states, and chemical reactions – which can help solve global problems, and design new materials in future.

It was an exciting talk to see the journey of a researcher in industry research settings, starting from her Ted Talk on plastics few years back ( to recent advances in quantum computing.