Researchers have long used simulations of molecules and chemical reactions to aid research into things like new materials, drugs, or industrial catalysts. The tactic can reduce time spent on physical experiments and scientific dead ends, and it accounts for a significant proportion of the workload of the world's supercomputers. Yet the payoffs are limited because even the most powerful supercomputers cannot perfectly re-create all the complex quantum behaviors of atoms and electrons in even relatively small molecules, says Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a chemistry professor at Harvard. He's looking forward to the day simulations on quantum computers can accelerate his research group's efforts to find new light-emitting molecules for displays, for example, and batteries suitable for grid-scale energy storage.
Microsoft is already focusing on chemistry and materials science in its quantum algorithm effort, saying a hybrid system combining conventional computers with a small quantum computer "has great promise for studying molecules." Meanwhile, the article argues that breaking encryption, "although a genuine threat, is one of the most distant applications of the technology, because the algorithms involved would require an extremely large quantum processor."