IBM is planning to build commercial quantum computers which are millions of times faster than their classical variants.

The firm has set up a new division, IBM Q, to work on the technology that takes advantage of the peculiar behaviour and properties of atoms and is difficult for even physicists to comprehend.

Quantum computers help people understand what's happening at the molecular level instead of making do with trial-and-error experiments, according to Jerry Chow, manager of IBM's experimental quantum computing team.

“Classical computers are extraordinarily powerful and will continue to advance and underpin everything we do in business and society,” said Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM Systems.

“But there are many problems that will never be penetrated by a classical computer. To create knowledge from much greater depths of complexity, we need a quantum computer.

“We envision IBM Q systems working in concert with our portfolio of classical high-performance systems to address problems that are currently unsolvable, but hold tremendous untapped value.”

IBM open-sourced its fledgling quantum computing system in May, allowing anyone to access it via the internet. Approximately 40,000 people have since run more than 275,000 experiments on it, the firm said.

A new application programming interface (API) released today allows developers to build software integrations between classical computers and IBM's existing quantum computing system, which has a 5-qubit processor.

IBM is also releasing a simulator capable of modelling 20-qubit circuits while it hopes to make a software development kit available on this platform to developers in the first half of 2017, meaning they can begin to develop quantum-based software.

Quantum computing could revolutionise how drugs are discovered and illnesses treated – among many other advancements – when the technology matures.

Microsoft, Intel and Google are among the companies with research departments in this area.