cold storage

This week, the Anglo-German-American industrial gas and chemicals maker Linde announced a new partnership with Finnish refrigeration technology maker Bluefors to develop and scale a product for quantum computing cryogenics. So could this rarefied segment of the refrigeration technologies sector become the next version of the still-red-hot investment market for cold-storage logistics?

According to an announcement from the two companies this week, Linde will bring to bear its experience as the world leader in large cryogenic installations, combining with Bluefors’ ultra-low temperature interface, which is needed for quantum computing. Together, the companies say, their combined approach will ensure cryogenics are ready for the “next steps” in large-scale quantum computing, in terms of cooling power, efficiency and robustness.

Quantum computers–emerging next-generation computers that use properties of quantum physics to parse massive datasets at high speed–could potentially generate levels of computational power not physically attainable under current technology standards. Cryogenics–cooling technologies–are critical in enabling quantum power, because large-scale quantum circuits are easily disturbed by thermal energy, and thus need to be maintained at near-absolute-zero conditions.

The technical challenge of maintaining such rarefied physical conditions poses an obvious (and significant) barrier to the advancement of quantum technologies–but the gears of industrial R&D are turning.

According to a March 2020 Physics World piece contributed by Bluefors, the Helsinki-based company is hoping to develop and scale the market for quantum cryogenic systems by providing better reliability and ease-of-use.

“Many new technologies, including quantum computing, require a controlled measurement environment at temperatures close to absolute zero,” says David Gunnarsson, the company’s chief sales officer. “Cryogenic systems have traditionally been difficult to use and maintain, and our aim is to eliminate those obstacles and enable our users to focus on being creative in their research.”

That cold, huh? 

Per Bluefors, the company itself was built on developing cryogen-free dilution refrigerators, which avoid the need for liquid helium as a pre-cooling agent. “Dry” systems such as these, which have become the preferred technology for low-temperature research (Bluefors itself was founded by two low-temperature physicists, and its dilution refrigerators have been described as “colder than anyplace in the known universe“) require less hands-on attention than previous “wet” systems. Making cryogenics easier to use allows for commercial-scale systems that can handle large experimental assemblies and–importantly–can be operated by non-specialists or even automated, both key breakthroughs to industrial application.

Bluefors’ Gunnarsson told Physics World last spring that he believed these improvements to existing cryogenic systems have been a “crucial enabler for the upswell of commercial interest in quantum computing.”

“Quantum technology and the development of new cryogenic systems has gone hand in hand, and has driven both technologies forward,” he told the publication.

During an initial phase of the latest partnership, Linde and Bluefors focused on identifying how the technologies could best work together. Now, the companies are using those conclusions to get their joint product ready for market.

“I am happy that we, as two world leaders within their respective sectors, take on this challenge,” said Linde Engineering Senior Vice President John van der Velden. “The market potential for the technology is significant, since quantum computing will enable complex or real-time task processing, to name just a few examples: in healthcare modeling, banking and finance, autonomous driving, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.”

“After our first meetings, it was clear to both Bluefors and Linde that this was a perfect match for the next phases,” said Bluefors CEO and co-founder Rob Blaauwgeers. “Linde shares the same values regarding product quality and reliability and has long experience in providing large scale cryogenics, which is a necessity in the next steps of quantum computing scale-up.”

Meanwhile, more industrial breakthroughs in the quantum space may be in store. In January 2021, Microsoft announced that it, along with a research team from the University of Sydney, has developed a cryogenic quantum control platform powered by a chip, Gooseberry, that operates at 100 milliKelvin (mK)–cold enough to power quantum input-output systems–without exceeding the cooling power of a standard commercially-available research refrigerator at such low temperatures.

And in other news from Linde, earlier this month, the company announced a deal with Norwegian ferry operator Norled to supply liquid hydrogen and related infrastructure to the world’s first operational hydrogen-powered ferry, which will transport both cars and passengers.

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