Alum spotlight: David E. Bernal Neira
May 25, 2023
When David E. Bernal Neira ('21) uses the word teleportation at work, he's not chatting about science fiction.
Bernal Neira is an associate scientist at NASA and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), studying quantum computers with the hope of understanding them for practical uses.
"Anything that is small enough, cold enough, or isolated enough behaves according to certain laws of nature that are not the same as those we use at our scale," says Bernal Neira of quantum mechanics. Behaviors at this scale are counter-intuitive.
Quantum computing involves trying to use the phenomena that appear in quantum mechanics to perform computation more efficiently. "If we turn a problem that would take an impractical amount of time to solve into something that can be practically solved, then suddenly, we're getting a lot of value, and we're solving a lot of societal problems," he says.
Bernal Neira has been working in the same group at NASA where he interned while a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University.
When his advisor, Ignacio Grossmann, was preparing to give a talk on the future of the process systems engineering field, Bernal Neira told him he thought it was quantum computing. About a year later, Grossmann sent Bernal Neira a paper he had received from Sridhar Tayur, a professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business. Tayur was proposing to use quantum computers to solve the kind of optimization problems in which Grossmann is an expert. After reading Bernal Neira's review of his draft, Tayur connected him to a quantum computing lab at NASA that needed an intern with experience in optimization.
Bernal Neira says he'll never forget when Tayur asked him, "Do you want to work at NASA?" Those words represented an opportunity to pair process systems engineering and quantum computing.
"I fell in love from minute one with chemical engineering. I have to say, though, that I always had this crush on physics," he says. At the Universidad de Los Andes, Bernal Neira earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering, as well as a bachelor's degree in physics. Drawn to computational work, he thought he would have to leave physics behind.
As a Ph.D. student, Bernal Neira worked with theory, algorithms, and software to solve discrete nonlinear optimization problems, also known as mixed integer nonlinear programming. Decades before, Grossmann and his research group were among the first to propose methods to solve these problems. Bernal Neira's research improved that algorithm from the 1980s.
In his algorithms and theory, Bernal Neira used top of the line software tools known as solvers. When he encountered problems with the code, he didn't have to submit them to an online forum and wait for a response. "I would just need to knock on the office in front of us because the students of Larry Biegler would be the ones developing part of the code," he recalls. In other cases, he would go talk to Nick Sahinidis or Carl Laird. "The environment in chemical engineering at CMU is unmatched," says Bernal Neira.
In addition to his internship with NASA, he also interned with ExxonMobil twice. The second time, he was part of a small task group trying to use quantum computing to optimize the maritime routing logistics of moving liquified natural gas around the world. "It's a problem that gets complicated even for (non-quantum) computers, because the amount of choices that you can make grows exponentially," says Bernal Neira. "Even computing one solution per second, it would take the age of the universe to get what the optimal solution looks like. That's where quantum computing comes in."
After completing his Ph.D., Bernal Neira was hired by Purdue University's Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, alongside fellow alum Can Li ('21). Bernal Neira will start his faculty position this fall.
"Looking for optimal solutions is expensive. It's time consuming. It's complicated," he says. "In the same way that Ignacio uses tools of mathematics and computer science to solve problems in chemical engineering, I am currently studying how we can use quantum computing, or how we can get inspired by quantum computing, in order to solve these problems more efficiently."