23 September 2020

Tomorrow’s pharmaceuticals could be discovered by quantum simulators

Quantum physics

Trial and error define today’s approach to developing new pharmaceutical drugs. But with their enormous computing power, quantum computers are expected to solve important and complex problems in medicine, biology and chemistry, while speeding up the discovery of effective medications. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have just received DKK 108.6 million (EUR 14.6m) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation for two new centers that will develop and use quantum simulators to help create tomorrow’s pharmaceuticals.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute and Department of Mathematical Sciences have received a total of DKK 108.6 million (EUR 14.6m) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to develop and use quantum simulators to develop new drugs. Photo: Getty  

10,000 years of work in 3.5 minutes. This was the conclusion of a tech giant in its initial bid for how long it would take a quantum computer to calculate a complex equation — a calculation that would require 10,000 years of work by today’s best computers to solve.

This same processing power will now be customized to develop new pharmaceutical drugs, currently an extremely time-consuming and complex process. Such increased processing power holds great potential. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute and Department of Mathematical Sciences have received a total of DKK 108.6 million (EUR 14.6m) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to develop and use quantum simulators to develop new drugs.    

"The development of new pharmaceutical drugs currently involves a great deal of testing because conventional methods are unable to calculate how proteins and other complex systems will respond to new drugs. Quantum technologies present us with new opportunities to develop specialized quantum simulators that can be tailored to tackle these processes," explains Professor Peter Lodahl of the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute.

Professor Lodahl is receiving 60 million kroner (EUR 8m) for his research and will head the "Solid-State Quantum Simulators for Biochemistry" center, known as “Solid-Q”. The center will work on applying and integrating two types of quantum simulation hardware which can perform quantum mechanical calculations of complex biomolecules.

The other centre is called "Quantum for Life" and is headed by Professor Matthias Christandl of UCPH’s Department of Mathematical Sciences. This project aims to develop mathematical algorithms that can be used for the quantum simulation of biomolecules, which will in turn make it possible to study complex biochemical processes.

"The centre will develop and use customized quantum algorithms, and in doing so, allow us to open up a new chapter in ‘computational life-sciences’ here in Denmark. With the new center, I am pleased that the quantum mathematics we work on will be able to be used to solve important issues surrounding fundamental biological processes," says Professor Matthias Christandl, who has received DKK 48.6 million (EUR 6.5m) for his research.

The team behind Solid-Q


“At very low temperatures, our artificial molecules are almost frozen, allowing us to observe and manipulate individual reactions in real time, one “atom” at a time.”

Anasua Chatterjee (Assistant Professor, Center for Quantum Devices)


“As physicists we often view quantum dots as artificial atoms, but this is the first time that we will play chemist and perform artificial chemical reactions. I look forward to this opportunity.”

Ferdinand Kuemmeth (Associate Professor, Center for Quantum Devices)


“Realization of new tunable engineered quantum simulators will have important implications for our understanding of advanced quantum materials, including interaction-driven emergent electronic phases.”

Brian Møller Andersen (Associate Professor, NBI)


“This project is an exciting opportunity to explore how emerging quantum technological devices can open new windows into the intriguing physics of quantum reaction dynamics and energy transport, with an outlook toward tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society today.”

Mark Rudner (Associate Professor, Center for Quantum Devices)


Dissipation and transport of energy in complex molecules is important for many biological systems and with this project we get an exciting opportunity to deepen our understanding of these processes by performing simulations in small engineered quantum systems

Thomas Sand Jespersen  (Associate Professor, Center for Quantum Devices)


“Computational chemistry transformed our understanding of molecular systems in the twentieth century, with this project we explore how quantum simulators can deliver chemical insight for the twenty-first.” 

Gemma C. Solomon (Professor, Nano-Science Center and Department of Chemistry)


“With Solid-Q we challenge ourselves to bring our highly refined quantum devices into the context of chemical reactions and biochemistry. We greatly appreciate that the Novo Nordisk Foundation has given us the opportunity to explore this new direction.“ 

Jesper Nygård  (Professor, Center for Quantum Devices)


“Adding artificial vibrational modes to quantum dot arrays will allow us to emulate real molecules alongside with some of their chemical functionality. If this works out, these solid state simulators provide a powerful tool for prediction and understanding complex  non-linear quantum systems.”

Jens Paaske  (Associate Professor, Center for Quantum Devices)


“With quantum simulators we have the possibility of a major breakthrough in our ability to simulate quantum dynamics. With Solid-Q we want to turn this dream into reality.”

Anders S. Sørensen (Professor, Center for Hybrid Quantum Networks)

“Photonics offers exciting prospects of scaling up available quantum hardware to realize quantum simulators. Within Solid-Q we will follow that pathway based on our newly developed deterministic single-photon and multi-photon-entanglement source”

Peter Lodahl (Professor, Center for Hybrid Quantum Networks)

“Solid-Q will enable us to simulate critical biochemical processes across a range of energy scales; an overwhelming challenge for conventional computers.”

Jacques Carolan (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow,  Center for Hybrid Quantum Networks)


  • The research projects are interdisciplinary and the consortia of researchers at the centers include physicists, mathematicians, chemists and biologists. This diversity of expertise is needed to fulfil the ambition of developing high-quality quantum simulators which can effectively contribute ever-increasing insight to the life-sciences.

  • The grants were awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation's Challenge Programme. The programme grants tens of millions of kroner annually to ambitious research projects which focus on global challenges. The Challenge Programme is targeted at research projects that address a host of major societal challenges — hence its name, “Challenge Programme”.