SPECTRUM: Energy-Gobbling Cryptocurrency Redux

A little over a year ago I took apart the cryptographic arms race that makes Bitcoin such a massive energy hog. For their January 2019 issue IEEE Spectrum asked me to follow up by profiling Ethereum, Bitcoin’s younger cryptocurrency cousin, which used roughly as much electricity as Iceland for most of 2018. The resulting feature explores the implications of Ethereum’s heavy energy footprint and the Ethereum community’s ambition to prove out a better way to secure global transactions. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the candour of Vitalik Buterin, the Russian-Canadian computer scientist who invented Ethereum when he was just 18. “Criminal” and “a huge waste of resources” are how he described the power-hungry ‘Proof of Work’ distributed security scheme that underpins most cryptocurrencies — including Bitcoin and Ethereum. Even in raw economic terms, Buterin ventured that his brainchild’s economic contributions “look unfavourable” next to the “millions of dollars being burned” to sustain Ethereum.

By the end of this year Buterin and his fellow travellers expect to be implementing an alternative security scheme (‘Proof of Stake’). Ultimately, vows Buterin, they will slash Ethereum energy use by over 99 percent.

A Solid-State Fridge in Your Pocket

Can you imagine an electric cooler compact enough to fit in your pocket and flexible enough to wear? If not, think again because engineers at the University of California at Los Angeles and SRI International have one working: A 5-millimeter-thick device that is the world’s first solid-state cooler combining practicality, energy efficiency, and high performance. Solid-state cooling has become a highly-competitive field in recent years, as researchers race to develop alternatives to refrigerators and air conditioners that gobble energy and release potent greenhouse gases. In 2014 General Electric heralded a “breakthrough” using materials that heat and cool when moved near and away from magnets, enthusing that its “magnetocaloric” system could be “inside your fridge by the end of the decade.” The comparatively simple working device from UCLA and SRI, reported in today’s issue of the journal Sciencemay give GE the chills.

Continue reading “A Solid-State Fridge in Your Pocket”

Beetles, Cacti, Killer Plants Inspire Efficiency

What do you get when you mix a desert beetle, a pitcher plant, and a cactus? Pick the right parts and you get an extremely slippery surface with an uncanny capacity to condense and collect water, according to research reported today in the journal Nature. The advance could be a big deal for the energy world because, when it comes to energy efficiency, condensation lies somewhere between a necessary evil and a major drag. Nuclear, coal, and thermal solar power plants, for example, require large heat exchangers to condense the steam exiting from their turbines so that they can raise a new round of hotter steam. For other devices, such as wind turbines and refrigerator coils, condensation is the first step towards energy-sapping ice formation. Continue reading “Beetles, Cacti, Killer Plants Inspire Efficiency”