This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
When I visited NASA about 20 years ago, and looked through the glass from the gallery into Mission Control it was a strange feeling. Like visiting New York for the first time – I had seen it all before but only remotely on film. I thought I knew it, but I didn’t. It was smaller than I thought. Stripped of its drama it was just like any other open plan office. But these were the men and women who had brought the astronauts from the stricken Apollo 13 back to earth. The skill and knowledge, and immaculate calm, did not advertise itself. A single fact at that time stood out for me. I was told by my guide that all the computers in the room I was looking at were Windows 2.1 Microsoft 286s. Even then, all the memory and operating capacity in the banks of 286s was less than the memory in my then (and now vintage) mobile phone. That operating system, I was told, was being used both up there above the earth and here on the ground, because it was ‘reliable’.
Fast forward to 2021. It would now take 2.4 million years to mine a single bitcoin from your office computer. This explosion in demand for CPUs (Central Processing Unit) and GPUs (Graphic Processing Unit) is now shaping the world and causing some real-world side-effects that just led Elon Musk to pull out of Bitcoin sales of Tesla vehicles; not because it is not a suitable place to store revenue but because of the energy required to service the production of Bitcoin. Such energy use is so huge now it obviates any green benefit of his vehicles.
I was able to watch this in real life action on a young assistant’s computer this week as he demonstrated what he was saying from the activities of his lap-top used for playing games. For those of us not of game-playing age this matter might seem irrelevant, but I can assure you it is not. As he turned on his computer he explained the existence and need for his four-core processing units and how simply to play certain games the CPUs and GPUs are sweated. If you have ever heard your PC or Laptop suddenly burst into life with the whirring of the fan, this is the sign that the computer brain is heating up and cooling is taking place. What is hard for oldies to comprehend is that such great technology is being used for something as essentially frivolous as gaming. However, even if we know nothing of the games, none of us can be unaware of the millions invested in this part of the gig economy. In a real-life demo, my assistant showed me as the temperature on his system rose to 40 degrees C and then 70. He then described how a copper tube within the lap-top was conducting heat away from the core. In other systems coolant liquids and fans are used.
The whole matter was not unlike the management of the hot gas at the core of a gas turbine engine which is able to burn at temperatures higher than the melting point of the underlying alloys in the high pressure turbine blades. Like this example, the computer is said to ‘over clock’, meaning a component is able to work above its normal limit if cooling is sufficient.
But all this is wearing out components in months that would once have lasted years. With a single Bitcoin at the time of writing worth about $38,000 what is happening is that each time a bitcoin is mined, the equation that generated it, becomes harder and more complex to solve. While only 21 million Bitcoins will ever be minted, we are already up to 19 million and as each new Bitcoin emerges the demand on processing is growing exponentially. It is said that 72 GW of power is consumed to mine a single Bitcoin. To put this in context, it would take Hinkley Point C, which is billed to generate 3.26 GW constantly, (gigajoules per second/measure of energy) 72 gigajoules of energy to mine a Bitcoin. Or, put more simply, it takes 23 seconds of Hinkley Point Cs undivided power.
To bring this all down to earth – and metal – there is the small matter of ruthenium. Since about 2000, when something called ‘pixie dust’ was invented, the use of ruthenium revolutionised data storage by allowing data to be stored vertically. This is called High Density Data Storage (HDD). Today a new crypto currency called ‘Chia’ is on the threshold of being launched in Asia with billions of real world dollars waiting to be uplifted into the ether. While Chia will apparently require less processing to mine, the downside is its humungous need for HDD as an un-substitutable offline electronic bank vault to contain your precious new crypto. And it is apparently the imminent launch of Chia that is driving the demand for ruthenium.
In the last three months the ruthenium market (about 32 mt per year) has seen a rise in price from $250 per toz to $675 per toz at time of writing. There is something of a panic simply to obtain storage for the crypto-currency out there, let alone the pandemic-driven Cloud storage required for home photos. It does not need me to explain that supply of this second most minor of the five platinum group metals, of which 90% comes from South Africa, is now – to put it mildly – constrained.
Go play!….Oink! Oink!
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