The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office published Intel’s patent application for a new method of mining bitcoin that could dramatically reduce energy use. The patent was originally filed in late 2016 by three Intel employees, but was only cleared for publication yesterday. The application is highly technical in nature, but essentially describes a process that could compress certain kinds of data to make SHA-256 hashing methods more efficient. While the exact amount of energy savings would vary depending on the specifics of the mining system, some processes could see 43% improvements in energy efficiency.Intel’s proposed improvements were designed with bitcoin mining ASICs in mind, but the patent application notes that the technology could be applied to virtually any machine capable of running a mining software.
“The embodiments may also be applicable to other types of integrated circuits and programmable logic devices,” the application says. “For example, the disclosed embodiments are not limited to desktop computer systems or portable computers … And may be also used in other devices, such as handheld devices, tablets, other thin notebooks, systems on a chip (SoC) devices, and embedded applications. Some examples of handheld devices include cellular phones, Internet protocol devices, digital cameras, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and handheld PCs … or any other system that can perform the functions and operations.” The application also suggests that low-powered devises like smartwatches and even “electronic implants” could make use of the technology.
This focus on low-powered devices isn’t a coincidence. Around the time the patent was originally applied for, Intel was working closely with a much-hyped blockchain startup called 21, Inc. That company planned to integrate cryptocurrency mining technology into range of internet of things (IoT) devices, allowing for peer-to-peer micropayments and blockchain-powered data verification. While 21, Inc. has since completely rebranded itself as a microtask-focused marketplace (similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform), it appears that Intel still has something to show from the partnership.
While the patent is definitely interesting, it remains unclear if Intel has any actual interest in moving into the bitcoin mining market. The application suggests that this technology could take the form of a physical upgrade to existing mining hardware — perhaps taking the form of a dedicated GPU-like card — although there is no indication that Intel has such a product is in the works. (Such a product could make older mining hardware more competitive, and change the assumptions behind virtually every bitcoin profitability calculator.) Given that other major chipmakers and tech firms — notably Samsung — have started staking out claims in the cryptocurrency space, however, it also wouldn’t be a surprise if a major announcement from Intel was on the horizon.