material gains
Cryptocurrency Mining is Energy-Intensive. Is It Also an Energy Solution?
The controversial technology could help cut the carbon footprint of daily living.
We know the pandemic has forced many to work from home (WFH) and as a result driven up demand for products like PCs and home IT equipment. There has also been a large reduction in commuting to and from workplaces, which many have enjoyed and vowed to continue even after lockdowns are lifted.

These changes ought to benefit the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. We should consider the impact of the extra demands placed on data infrastructures to handle this upsurge in remote working, however. It takes energy to move all that data back and forth, although arguably this would happen whether workers are at the office or at home.

Data center businesses have blossomed during the pandemic, with an uptick in demand for their services. These include work-related services as well as home entertainment. Netflix has reported record consumption, although the rise has flattened recently, perhaps as content has become exhausted.

With or without the pandemic, the number of subscribers is growing, and the diversity of workloads, particularly IoT applications, data analytics, AI training, video streaming and social media, is increasing.

Cryptocurrency mining, the number crunching needed to maintain the digital ledger (blockchain) and create new cryptocurrency, has been growing too and is likely to continue as acceptance of cryptocurrency becomes more widespread. Despite the concerns governments and financial regulators have expressed regarding cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and independent exchanges, El Salvador recently became the first sovereign state to recognize Bitcoin as legal tender.

Perhaps even more important, the Chinese government has recently created its own digital currency, the Digital Yuan, although there are important differences compared with a traditional cryptocurrency, one being that it is centralized and government-controlled.

The political, practical and technical aspects of cryptocurrencies are fascinating. The digital ledger technology eliminates any need for a coordinator or intermediary and hence could dramatically reduce the cost of transactions. Investopedia noted the Digital Yuan could enable China’s unbanked population – the world’s largest – to take part in the mainstream economy without expensive banking products and infrastructure.

This observation contrasts with concerns over the energy-intensive nature of cryptocurrency mining. The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index continuously monitors the energy consumed by mining and estimates it to be 26 to 175TWh per annum, the median being 72TWh. To put this in perspective, it’s about half the energy estimated to be consumed in the US alone by consumer devices sitting in standby modes and not being used.

Cryptocurrency creators know energy consumption is an issue. Ethereum is trying to tackle it by changing its underlying principle from proof of work, which requires energy-intensive mining, to a proof-of-stake basis that could consume 1/10,000th of the energy currently needed.

Another way to reduce crypto’s carbon footprint is to power data centers using renewable energy sources. Plans were announced recently to set up a dedicated crypto-mining data center in Texas, powered by a gigawatt of renewable energy.

Miners are also blamed for the supply difficulties conventional data centers and gamers have experienced in accessing high-performing graphics accelerator cards. Of course, the disruption to IC supplies caused by the pandemic is another factor. The situation could ease as chip supplies recover and as new cryptocurrency mining processor (CMP) cards reach the market. These deliver the performance of a graphics card while removing display outputs and image-rendering capabilities, which, obviously, are unneeded.

As well as chip-supply shortages, supplies of basic materials like FR-4 substrates have become compromised of late. Some Asian suppliers have extended lead times for FR-4 substrates to several months, leading some markets to consider higher-value substrates as replacements. The shift could ultimately end demand for low-end FR-4 materials, particularly in Europe.

There is some justification for moving to higher-value substrates. The demand for high-performance computing engines to host all types of data-intensive workloads is forcing system architects to contemplate how to reduce energy consumption and improve thermal management. Low-loss substrates, in particular, are a part of the solution to these challenges, and there will also be demand for more diverse and differentiated portfolios of thermal management substrates.

Ultimately, we must find ways to accomplish our tasks using less energy and, in fact, with less environmental impact generally. Other examples include moves toward using less-aggressive chemistries in PCB production.

WFH and digital currencies (whether centralized or decentralized – the arguments will continue) are trends that could help us work toward parity between our demand for energy and the total environmentally sustainable supply.

Alun Morgan smiling
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.