Making the blockchain stop wasting energy by making it manage energy

Making the blockchain stop wasting energy by making it manage energy

Zoom / Managing micrograms may be a case where blockchain actually comes in handy.

One of the worst features of blockchain technologies like cryptocurrency and NFTs is their horrific use of energy. When we must extract every bit of efficiency from our use of electricity, most block chains require computers to perform pointless calculations frequently.

The obvious solution is to build the blockchain on useful accounts – something we might need to do anyway. Unfortunately, the mathematics involved in the blockchain must have a very specific property: the solution must be difficult to calculate but easy to verify. However, a number of useful computations have been identified as potential alternatives to those currently used in many systems.

A paper released this week adds another option to this list. Optimization problems are known to be expensive in terms of calculations, but the quality of the solution is relatively easy to assess. And in this case, the systems being optimized are small power grids, which means that this approach can partially offset some of the appalling power usage in the blockchain.

to improve

The classic example of a logical arithmetic problem in the blockchain is the analysis of a large number from two prime numbers. It is mathematically difficult to determine primes, but once you have them, it is very easy to confirm the result of multiplying them. From an energy wastage perspective, doing non-trivial calculations is pointless unless you know a case where these numbers matter.

Optimization problems are similar. Finding the optimal solution, such as the shortest route involving several cities, requires sampling of all possible routes. The number of possible routes increases exponentially with each additional city being put on the itinerary. For many optimization problems, figuring out whether a proposed path is efficient is a much simpler computational process, which means that it is easy to check any solutions.

Importantly, real-world optimization issues crop up all the time, from how most boxes are squeezed into a shipping container to how tools and technicians are set to ensure maintenance work is carried out efficiently. This difference is behind the research team’s efforts to transform blockchain from Proof of Work (PoW) like large number analysis to Proof of Solution (PoSo), where blockchain transactions lead to beneficial computation. (If you’re wondering why PoSo ended up with a second “o,” drop the letter and think about it for a moment.)

When choosing an optimization problem for their PoSo blockchain, the researchers chose sarcasm, focusing on the power supplies that other blockchains eat. They have noticed many problems in power distribution where improvement is needed: matching supply with demand, finding out the economic combination of generation sources, etc.

They also argue that blockchain may make more sense as the energy market begins to decentralize a bit, with an increasing number of items such as micro-grids, rooftop solar, intermittent power sources, and smaller on-grid batteries, all of which decentralize power sources on the grid. The complexity of managing it all as a single central network is growing accordingly, so the researchers suggest that small subnets can self-manage through PoSo-based optimizations.

No more Enrons?

To test their system, they turn to two small energy systems. One of them is the University of Manchester, which has some heating and power facilities, electricity storage, heat storage, along with some boilers. Knowing which of these should activate under different conditions is an economic optimization problem but it can be traced mathematically enough that the solution can be calculated in less than 220 seconds. Verification of this solution takes a total of 1 second.

They conducted a similar analysis of a system providing a combination of electricity, heating, and cooling for an area in Suzhou, China. Once again, the system was able to quickly create optimal solutions for resource allocation and was able to compete with a centralized management system.

The problem is that the system still requires multiple computers for calculations and verification, so it will require more power than just running the optimization on a single system. But the researchers argue that the PoSo blockchain solution offers an important advantage: it is difficult to play.

Imagine a situation where the operator of a central management system wants to favor specific generation sources even (or specifically) if they are more expensive than other options. There is basically nothing that can stop him. In contrast, with a distributed system, all individual nodes will compete to find the best solution. Even if one or two nodes are compromised, others must produce optimized systems, and the verification process will ensure that one of these nodes is used.

Overall, this seems like a bit of a stretch, since it’s not clear how often energy price manipulation is of the kind that this system will protect against. However, it is good to see some concrete ideas about using the blockchain in situations where the power requirements are not so daunting, and there are some valuable practical outcomes.

nature energy2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41560-022-01027-4 (about DOIs).

2022-06-05 12:08:03

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