Cryptocurrencies predicated on owning a big number of hard discs, rather than using computer processors, could offer a less energy-intensive option to bitcoin and may even make it cheaper to build data centres – although one has already been triggering soaring demand for hard discs that’s disrupting supply chains.
Bitcoin and many other popular cryptocurrencies are created, or mined, by using a concept called proof work, which involves solving computationally difficult puzzles that consume a large amount of electricity. Bitcoin’s twelve-monthly electricity consumption is estimated to be 148 terawatt-hours and rising, or around the same amount as Poland’s. Now, rival currencies are emerging that instead utilize many empty hard discs, an idea known as proof space.
Because hard disks are less energy-intensive to perform than processors, proof-of-space currencies are touted to be more green. However, demand for just one such currency, Chia, has become so high that some Parts of asia, such as for example Vietnam, are reporting shortages of hard discs. The same phenomenon occurred with graphics cards, which became extremely efficient at mining certain proof-of-work cryptocurrencies. Currently, around 3 million terabytes of hard disc space are being devoted entirely to mining Chia, enough to store 3 billion movies.
Jason Feist at hard disk drive manufacturer Seagate says the company is experiencing strong orders and that staff were attempting to “adapt to market demand”.
He also suggested these new cryptocurrencies could give a method for companies building large data centres to offset the price by turning them to mining. “Chia, and similar technologies such as for example Filecoin and Sia, show potential ways businesses can change their idle infrastructure into ongoing revenue,” says Feist.
Michel Rauchs at the University of Cambridge says that while bitcoin’s proof-of-work approach is well understood, proof-of-space alternatives are still within their infancy.
Read more: Bitcoin mining emissions in China will hit 130 million tonnes by 2024
“Other consensus algorithms that are less energy-intensive but also introduce some degree of centralisation and subjectivity could be a satisfactory trade-off. There are always trade-offs involved, most of which have a tendency to only become known as time passes,” he says.
Aron Peterson, who works in digital production for the film industry in the united kingdom, says that people in his field began to spot the price of computing hardware creeping above manufacturer-listed prices around six years ago. He puts it right down to the demand for graphics cards by cryptocurrency miners.
“It had been leading to frustration among creatives and gamers who didn’t want to buy upgrades at inflated prices just because other people were wasting large sums of electricity to compete for digital tokens,” he says.
After deciding to try mining himself, Peterson found that it had been using significant energy. He also predicted that it could take five months before mining any coins. “Obviously I wasn’t likely to run this experiment for five months, particularly if the estimated time continued to climb as new miners appeared,” he says.
Peterson isn’t convinced by Chia’s green credentials, saying bitcoin miners are unlikely to change since it would require them to get new hardware. “Rather than displacement, it’s yet another crypto to be mined,” he says.
“Apart from the energy usage, this results in mountains of electronic waste as hard disks will fail faster and more regularly,” says Peterson. “The poorest persons on the globe already live with mountains of e-waste pollution we dump on them which is just going to increase that.”
Chia Network, the firm behind the cryptocurrency, didn’t react to a request for comment.
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