Transitioning oil giant Total is ramping up research into quantum algorithms that would improve materials for carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage, through a new multi-year partnership with UK start-up Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC).

The quantum algorithms being developed will simulate “all the physical and chemical mechanisms in these [materials] as a function of their size, shape and chemical composition” – something supercomputers don’t have the processing power to do – and make it possible to select the most efficient carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) materials to commercialise.

“Quantum computing opens up new possibilities for solving extremely complex problems,” stated Total chief technology officer Marie-Noëlle Semeria.

“We are therefore among the first to use quantum computing in our research to design new materials capable of capturing CO2 more efficiently. In this way, Total intends to accelerate the development of the CCUS technologies that are essential to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050.”

Ilyas Khan, CEO of CQC, said: “Carbon neutrality is one of the most significant topics of our time and incredibly important to the future of the planet. Total has a proven long-term commitment to CCUS solutions. We are hopeful that our work will lead to meaningful contributions and an acceleration on the path to carbon neutrality.”

Nanoporous adsorbents are considered among the “most promising” solutions by Total, which aims to use the technology developed to capture CO2 emitted by the group's industrial operations, as well as selling it to other heavy emitter industries, such as the cement and steel sectors.

Interestingly, Total sees the new materials as potentially useful to so-called “direct air capture” projects as well as to trap emissions from conventional sources, such as refineries, factories and other heavy industry facilities.

Although it is generally agreed there are few technological barriers to developing CCUS, there are only 20 large-scale projects in operation — including a £20m ($25.6m) scheme in the UK North Sea launched two years ago — due to the absence of policy frameworks supporting investment in CCS.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) underlines that to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, “almost all new investment will need to be zero-carbon or be offset by the early retirement of another emitting facility — or would require new technology like CCUS or hydrogen”.

By IEA calculations, existing energy-using infrastructure — including fossil fuel-driven power plants, industrial facilities and buildings — will emit a total of 55 billion tonnes of CO2 through to 2040, which equates to almost 95% of emissions permitted in the SDS.

According to the agency, over 450 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be captured globally for use or storage each year “with an incentive” of less than $40 per tonne of CO2 , a price point that could be reduced by “increased investment in and deployment of CCUS, especially where there are opportunities to act at low cost”.