We are agitated as in chips in the cryptosphere. Semiconductor giant Intel is to unveil an “ultra-low-voltage, energy-efficient” dedicated bitcoin processor. The Holy Grail for greener and more economical mining? Not so fast.
A hazardous discovery while reading the program of a conference. This is how the specialized site Tom’s Hardware present the case. Looking at the special events that will take place at the end of February 2022 during the ISSCC, the American high mass for electronic engineers, an appointment piques curiosity.
A dozen researchers working for Intel have planned to unveil a new high-performance integrated circuit (ASIC) for mining bitcoin. Equipment that is both less greedy in electricity and more technologically efficient.
In the absence of an official reaction from the semiconductor giant for the moment, the rumor mill and the promise factory of social networks are obviously racing. Especially since Intel scientists were able to put a flea in their ears by entitling their intervention « Bonanza Mine », an assumed reference to a vein in New Mexico, historically known for its abundance of precious minerals.
R&D for several years
In the early days of bitcoin, hobbyist miners used standard CPUs to participate in the network. As the difficulty of mining increased, the various players learned to adapt their means, resorting to more powerful graphics processing units (GPUs). But the ecosystem had to quickly industrialize and ASICs appeared around 2012.
Bitcoin has since required hardware accelerators, the so-called ASICs, which are certainly powerful but require a lot of energy. These ASICs process data inherent in cryptographic communication (such as nonces embedded in blocks — pour number only used once — that miners calculate to operate transactions). Despite advances, hardware accelerators still sequence transactions in multiple redundant steps. Optimization work keeps more and more engineers busy.
The giant Intel does not suddenly arrive in this field of crypto rich in announcement effects. Its teams have been working on the subject for several years now. Since 2018, moreover, Intel has even held a patent for this famous technology intended to improve support for the algorithm (SHA-256 secure hashing) specific to bitcoin. And two of the patented inventors just happen to be on the list of speakers expected at the ISSCC next month.
The IT infrastructure for bitcoin has evolved phenomenally. In ten years, ASICs have gained in performance, both more powerful and more energy efficient: “ approximately 50 million times faster (H/s) and one million times more energy efficient (H/D) than processors used in 2009 “, had already quantified Michael Bedford Taylor, professor of computer engineering at the University of Washington.
Without getting lost in technical jargon, how would this “new” chip from Intel manage to further optimize the process?
At the time of obtaining the patent, the Intel researchers had therefore developed a new architecture for the circuits and the data paths which physically and arithmetically reduced the number of calculations. The resulting chip would also be smaller than those currently embedded in mining facilities. Such a system should make it possible to reduce energy needs and therefore consumption by at least 15%.
Substantial efficiency gains can therefore be expected. But in these times when semiconductors have mainly hit the headlines due to the extent of the shortages, it remains to be seen whether Intel’s presentation will introduce a long-awaited new product for a market that remains niche, will deliver an inventory on the progress of an ambitious research project or will offer a tool to reconcile the general public with bitcoin mining.