Dutch scientist Bert de Jong, who leads Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Computational Chemistry, Materials, and Climate Group.

In its latest issue, the renowned MIT Technology Review featured a Dutch research team’s quantum technology as No. 1 breakthrough technology in 2020. Indeed, quantum technology is no longer an abstract field of fundamental science, it says. Driven by significant progress over the last couple of years, combined with major supporters across the tech industry, some meaningful applications are emerging. While the Netherlands has a world-famous quantum research cluster, so has the United States. Both countries recently launched ambitious policies to bolster quantum research and step up international collaboration.

Dutch scientist Bert de Jong, who leads Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Computational Chemistry, Materials, and Climate Group, sat down with us to discuss the prospects of quantum technology for developing better car batteries, biochemical research, and optimizing distribution networks, while considering the influence of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories and how they drive scientific discovery in his field of research.

“Someday we will run a desalination plant here in California completely with renewable energy,” says Bert de Jong. Though he works on molecular science, he always keeps a close watch on what his discoveries will ultimately help to achieve. “I work on exascale computing, machine learning, and quantum. Each of these fields can deliver meaningful breakthroughs.” With COVID-19 on everybody’s mind, people increasingly acknowledge the impact of high-performance computing for fields, such as genomic research and biochemical modeling. “It is secondary which technology pathway will lead to solutions. For me it is important to keep an open mind.”

This attitude reflects the way Berkeley Lab approaches its role in the academic community. “We sit between fundamental academic science and applied research teams within industry. I would say that we are de facto academia on steroids.He enjoys the freedom at the lab that allows him to work on a broad range of issues, unconstrained by faculty commitments. “The UC Berkeley campus and the lab are connected in many ways, (UC Berkeley’s campus is just a 10-minute walk down the hill from the main Berkeley Lab campus), and we have many joint projects where we work extensively with the talented students on campus.”

The (near) future of quantum

Working with his quantum algorithms team, QAT4Chem, he looks into novel ways to develop chemistry simulations. For Bert, chemistry is one of the first frontiers for impactful quantum technologies. “You see early adoption in a number of industries, many of which are chemistry related, such as pharmaceutical, medical, oil and gas, and energy. “Today, my team works on simulating biochemical systems that can play a role in developing faster drug discovery pipelines and may revolutionize the way we deal with pandemics in the future,” he says. “But it is important for industry leaders to invest now. The first to develop a car battery with 500+ miles capacity will be way ahead of everybody else.”

Other applications he predicts will soon come from sectors where micro-second decision-making is important, such as financial trading or the electric grid. He expects quantum software to see dramatic changes to services even making real-time traffic recommendations for busses, delivery vans, or taxis, among many other innovations on the horizon.

Bert de Jong is also running a new five-year multi-laboratory and university program called AIDE-QC, focused on the development of an open-source software development environment. “Quantum is still a nascent field, and reliable hardware is another five to 10 years away, though early hardware is in use. We can currently do limited chemistry and optimization problems, but mainly we are learning how to perform quantum simulations using real hardware.”

Urgent need for talent

Looking ahead, he points out that there is a scarcity of talent in the field of quantum technology because undergraduate programs in quantum are just now being established and countries have responded differently to the need. “It will be interesting to see what kind of multidisciplinary graduate programs come out of faculties that are far away from the Bay Area. China produces more talent in this field than all other countries combined,” he says. “There is an urgency to invest in talent now. Academia competes with industry for talent in the quantum computing space. In Silicon Valley, corporations hire engineers straight from university and offer much higher salaries than a university can afford. They even hire from campuses before students get their degree.” For academia and for Berkeley Lab, this is a dilemma. They just can’t compete. “With quantum technology trending, Berkeley Lab is fortunate to be able to make somewhat competitive offers.”

To demonstrate how quantum technology is booming, Bert de Jong explains that investment in quantum is not driven by a clear pathway to financial return. “Venture capital is very generous, and they are not expecting profits as soon as they would in other sectors.” Put differently, investors and big tech are hedging their bets, investing in top talent and waiting for future profit. Why are they doing this? For him, this is straightforward, “Invest today, or you will be too late when quantum becomes viable for business.”

Transatlantic opportunities

Even though he has been in the US for more than 20 years, he still works closely with research groups in the Netherlands on specific projects. Given its excellent reputation in quantum science, the Netherlands could do a lot more with the National Laboratories and universities in the US.

Bert de Jong recommends establishing more programs facilitating educational and scientific exchange across the Atlantic. “Since inner-European exchange programs are so much easier to finance, it is often difficult to get European universities to connect to the US – and this is true for all fields, not just for quantum computing. We need to generate as much talent as we can as quickly as possible. Not only in multiple institutions, but around the world. Programs could be established to fund workshops and research exchange for postdocs, graduate, and undergraduate students. I would welcome having more Dutch students participating in my research.” In his view, European students could benefit from having a temporary assignment in the US. “I do admire the educational system in the Netherlands. It’s way more solid and students are much better trained than in a considerable number of universities in the US. But this is primarily the case for baseline undergraduate education. When it comes to breeding excellence beyond that, the US system is far more effective.”

There is a premium for going beyond the norm. This is what compelled him to come and work in the US in the first place. After he finished his PhD in Groningen, he started his postdoc in Washington State at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), working in heavy-element research driven by needs to clean up the Hanford nuclear site. He ended up staying at PNNL for 14 years, eventually leading the team that developed the widely used NWChem computational chemistry code. When Berkeley Lab offered the opportunity to further his research and work on a more diverse research portfolio, he moved to the Bay Area.

Would he consider going back to the Netherlands? “I enjoy coming back to visit family and teach summer school, which I did last year,” says Bert de Jong, but for now he likes having feet planted in both continents.