The total energy need for bitcoin mining this year, estimated to about 140 terawatt-hours of electricity – which match Argentina’s entire electrical power consumption – could in turn lead to an embrace of renewable sources of energy. Hence, putting electricity to better use. The recent mathematical discovery made by computer programmers, who used a 350-year-old equation to find a record-breaking prime number, could possibly offer solutions to bitcoin’s immense demand for electrical power.
According to a statement earlier this month, the Great Internet Marin Mersenne Prime Search has found and confirmed the biggest known prime number, a 23-million-digit-long figure discovered with the math of 16th century French monk Marin Mersenne. That effort, alongside other collaborative computing methods, are greatly advancing the science of cryptography, which is required to create and track bitcoins.
Seth Schoen, a senior technologist at San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is offering a $150,000 bounty to the first person or group to discover a 100-million-digit prime number, said: “These ideas could be seen as intellectually connected. Cryptocurrency mining could be seen as an indirect descendant of distributed computing projects.”
The process of searching for prime numbers, which is at the foundation of cryptography, shows how solving tedious equations can lead to scientific breakthroughs that have practical applications.
The rapid increase in the value of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is rousing debate at the highest levels of monetary policy making. Supporters are of the opinion that trust in its blockchain technology for tracking transactions will eventually revolutionize how value is stored and transmitted. However, critics point to the massive energy being consumed by the machines that are used to solve the “mundane” mathematical equations that keep the system going.
Energy has always been part of bitcoin’s DNA. Satoshi Nakamoto, who was credited with the creation of the cryptocurrency, devised the system that awards bitcoins for solving complex puzzles and uses an encrypted digital ledger to track all the work and every transaction.
Schoen, in an email, wrote:
“This energy is put to a productive use in one sense – confirming the authenticity of bitcoin transactions. Yet it seems disproportionate in many ways, particularly if another technical alternative could be found for confirming transactions while using much less energy.”
The EFF technologist, who is active in encryption for more than 20 years, emphasized that it’s the collaborative methods used in detecting very large prime numbers rather than the figures themselves that have the biggest impact on cryptography. Until the advent of quantum computing, most people are safe with three-digit encryption, he said.
A search for compromise is increasing as most researchers are seeking to reduce the power required for computer processing. Yet others have been linking crypto mining to math that solves real-world problems.
For example, Gridcoin, a cryptocurrency mined by a global network of more than 23,000 computers that are connected with scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. Gridcoins are awarded in return for joining the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). The group stated that the work “may lead to advances in medicine, biology, mathematics, science, climatology, particle and astrophysics,” mentioning that the energy needed to mine Gridcoin is a fraction of what bitcoin requires.
Another emerging cryptocurrency field uses so-called proof-of-space algorithms. And according to Schoen, these could cap the amount of energy needed for mining and maintenance. Any new alternative still will struggle to overcome bitcoin’s advantage as first-mover among digital currencies.
“It’s clearer to see how the existence of bitcoin is making people better off. But it would definitely be interesting to see if cryptocurrencies in the future can align interests better by using proof-of-work problems with side effects that help solve other problems.”