How Germany is Building a Quantum Computing Ecosystem

Qiskit
Qiskit
Jun 15 · 9 min read

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Sieglinde Pfaendler, and Fabio Scafirimuto

This year, Germany kicked off its Roadmap Quantencomputing to lay the groundwork for a German-based quantum computing ecosystem. The country has earmarked two billion euros in order to see the vision through. But building a quantum computing landscape is about more than just hardware; it requires collaboration between research institutions, industry, government, and most importantly, the community.

Germany’s quantum community is an extremely vibrant space. Quantum research is underway at many of the country’s universities, companies, and research institutes under the umbrella of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaf, DLR, the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association institutes, and others. While no single story could fully capture the complexity of the German quantum field, these efforts are all guiding the country toward a singular goal: to become a European quantum leader.

“Germany has a history of being the machine shop of the world,” said Stefan Filipp, professor in Physics at the Technical University of Munich and Director of the Walther-Meißner-Institut of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. “There’s a feeling that we need to continue this for other technologies to come — such as quantum computing.”

Among the most notable efforts include the Roadmap Quantencomputing, providing a core goal for the country’s quantum research: Build a German quantum computer in the next five years. Meanwhile, Fraunhofer has recently purchased exclusive access to Europe’s first IBM Quantum System One, providing quantum hardware access to thousands across the country. Germany’s quantum vision extends to Europe as a whole, as researchers work with key European partners on strategic projects such as OpenSuperQ to build an open source quantum computer for anyone around the continent. Meanwhile, the Qiskit team is working to foster and support the community growing around these developments.

A Central Vision: The Roadmap Quantencomputing

Back in 2020, as part of an overall economic stimulus, the German government first announced that they had earmarked money devoted to developing a quantum computer while creating a roadmap to build a broader quantum ecosystem. German legislators noticed that large international companies and other countries were building technology and communities, and wanted to ensure that Germany, and Europe more generally, could have a stronger stake in the technology’s development.

The roadmap serves a few important purposes, explained Filipp, one of the roadmap committee’s co-chairs. Not only does it identify problems and map out technology development, but it also charts a way to attract more quantum expertise to Germany and to Europe as a whole. And, of course, it provides a strategy for workforce training of students, technicians, and other experts.

It was clear to the roadmap committee that no single large player could lead the way alone, so the roadmap prioritizes link building between various segments of the quantum space. Filipp explained that the roadmap calls for the designation of centralized regional hubs — Centers of Competence — to form networks between universities, research institutions, and industry partners. The roadmap recommends that research should focus around technology that has reached a certain level of maturity, such as superconducting, trapped ion, and cold atom quantum computers. However, it also recommends that basic research into other hardware architectures continues, too.

The roadmap committee specifically called out the importance of fostering commercial development and technology transfer, including ensuring that companies can buy components from local businesses, rather than importing them. “We need to identify players that can actually commercialize the product,” said Filipp. Hubs will focus on creating guidelines to determine what can be built locally and what should be imported. Filipp also foresees direct information exchange between industry and research in order to further strengthen these links.

Opening Quantum to Thousands of Beginners

As Germany works to build a quantum computer of its own in the next few years, Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself holder of a quantum chemistry doctorate degree, was impressed to see IBM’s progress on their quantum computers, and decided that the country should stake a larger claim in the field as quickly as possible. That was the beginning of the relationship between Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and IBM, with the aim to bring the first IBM Quantum System One to Europe. Fraunhofer, Europe’s leading application-oriented research organization with more than 80 research facilities, including 75 institutions across Germany, has had exclusive access to an IBM Quantum System One operated by IBM at the Ehningen location in Baden-Württemberg since January of 2021. The common goal between Fraunhofer and IBM is to stimulate and support German research in the applied quantum computing field overall.

The initiative benefits Fraunhofer researchers hoping to develop algorithms to solve practical problems, of course, but Fraunhofer also offers system access to external partners such as universities and companies who may be interested in this technology for civil research and education, yet don’t have a large budget to experiment with it at the moment, explained Prof. Dr. Oliver Ambacher from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Solid State Physics (IAF). Fraunhofer aims device access at beginners who want to find out more about quantum computing, as well as experts who are looking for partners on research projects or who want to develop their own quantum algorithms. Access requires a usage contract, but use is on the basis of a monthly ticket. This gives partners the greatest possible flexibility without a long-term commitment. As Fraunhofer’s purpose is to bridge research with industry, the availability of the device to German companies and researchers will hopefully help further the development of the German quantum ecosystem.

Fraunhofer’s IBM Quantum System One

Fraunhofer’s IBM Quantum System One also serves as an example of the Quantum Roadmap’s Center of Competence model in action. The federal state of Baden-Württemberg helped fund the device as well as some of the projects. At the moment, seven Fraunhofer Institutes and a host of universities and companies are getting involved in these quantum computing projects, with even more Institutes and organizations involved in the Fraunhofer Competence Network Quantum Computing.

Scientists have already had the chance to work with the IBM Quantum System One. The current projects focus on quantum optimization with resilient algorithms, software engineering of industrial quantum applications, and algorithms. Applications include new simulation approaches for materials in future energy storage systems, the optimization of financial portfolios, and the improvement of stability parameters in critical energy supply infrastructures, said Ambacher. He also thinks that the system can help build trust and important relationships for the betterment of quantum computing overall.

An Open Quantum Computer For All of Europe

German scientists are thinking beyond Germany, and are working to create an open quantum system for the whole of Europe. Frank Wilhelm-Mauch, Professor of Physics at Saarland University, hopes to offer European researchers access to a quantum computer that itself is a research and development tool to help users truly understand the depths of quantum hardware via the OpenSuperQ project, based at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in North Rhine-Westphalia.

“The public sector has a unique place in quantum computing to create tools for hardware developers to plug components into a complete machine and test them in this context,” said Wilhelm-Mauch, coordinator of the OpenSuperQ project. “With OpenSuperQ, we can train quantum computer engineers and developers on real hardware.”

The OpenSuperQ project started during some earlier German quantum computing ecosystem discussions around 2018, said Wilhelm-Mauch, as a non-commercial option for researchers in Germany and across Europe to experiment on quantum hardware. The group is now constructing a traditional superconducting quantum computer — but it’s more than just an experimental tool. Training engineers who will be able to construct and maintain quantum hardware and components is crucial to the expansion of quantum computing. Wilhelm-Mauch hopes that the OpenSuperQ device can serve as a training ground for those budding engineers.

Though its reach is continental, the OpenSuperQ project serves an important role in the German quantum ecosystem as well. The project’s location at Forschungszentrum Jülich is helping to attract and retain local quantum hardware expertise. Plus, through Forschungszentrum Jülich’s JUNIQ (Jülich UNified Infrastructure for Quantum computing) platform, businesses and researchers around Germany have access to both the OpenSuperQ device as well as other quantum hardware.

Supporting Quantum in Germany with the Qiskit Community

Since the turn of the 20th century, Germany’s scientists have played a significant role in contributing to the fundamental concepts and understanding underlying quantum technology, such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or Planck’s constant. These scientists were strongly networked in education and research on an international scale, and especially with with their German-speaking neighbors in Austria and Switzerland. These countries are famed for their unique education system that ensures a significant supply of practically trained engineers who can convert concepts into robust technological solutions, thus leading to successful innovation through collaboration with industry.

The Qiskit community team is working at several levels to engage the quantum computing community in Germany. A large German cohort attends global Qiskit events, such as the Global Summer School, for example. The Qiskit team in Europe has created events targeted to the DACH (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) audience, including our IBM Quantum Fridays seminar series, the Qiskit Hackathon Europe, and several workshops. Qiskit community interns, advocates, and enthusiasts from all over the world allow us to develop a local network of quantum computing expertise. “There are so many opportunities for young people to get into quantum computing and quantum information science that we’re practically flooded with events, conferences and opportunities to connect and network,” said Caroline de Groot, former Qiskit intern and Ph.D student at the Max-Planck-Institute for Quantum Optics.

Qiskit also collaborated with universities and Fachhochschulen in Berlin to organize Girls Day for introducing high school girls to STEM topics, in particular to quantum computing. “Girls day was an awesome way to inspire and motivate the quantum computing experts of tomorrow, and to help create an equitable German quantum workforce,” said Isabel Nha Min Le, Qiskit Intern and masters student at RWTH Aachen University.

Not only does Qiskit organize events, but it also fosters relationships with local professors and institutions, as this is perhaps the most effective way to develop a local community — building a local network requires teaming up with and between local institutions. Plus, quantum students and developers across Germany have begun to adopt Qiskit as a go-to language for programming quantum computers.

History has demonstrated that the shift to an open source mentality leads to an acceleration of innovation and advancement of technology in high-power computing. Learning from this, many in quantum computing have embraced an open source mindset from the start — this is a foundational concept of the Qiskit Community.

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Access Programs for Educators and Researchers

The IBM team has developed programs to promote access to real quantum computers for different audiences. For example, the IBM Quantum Educators program provides access to real quantum hardware for educators and lecturers at universities, Fachhochschulen, and high schools that use the free, online Qiskit Textbook in their courses so that their students have access to quantum computers during their teaching sessions without having to deal with long wait times. Those who are interested can submit applications for review.

The IBM Quantum Researchers program instead focuses on academic researchers, including postdoctoral researchers and Ph.D students, working on quantum computing research projects that could potentially lead to impactful publications in areas such as the development of new algorithms or improved control of qubit systems. Currently, there are various 5- and 7-qubit systems available for academics enrolled in this program. Additionally, for researchers requiring more advanced systems for their work, IBM offers project-based Access Awards for temporary access to a 16-qubit system. Scientists can apply for the program by submitting a project proposal for a technical and merit review, with the expectation that the award will lead to results that will be shared with the scientific community via a publication or conference presentation.

Thanks to a multitude of efforts, quantum is flourishing in Germany, with an ecosystem built on the country’s leadership and strengths in areas such as basic research and hardware development. The way forward is one rooted in open science and collaboration at academic institutions, supported by the network building and technology transfer efforts of Centers of Competence to ensure that research supports the growth of a quantum business sector, too. This model will hopefully not only make Germany a global quantum leader, but also push the field of quantum computing forward in Europe and in the rest of the world.

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