Bitcoins demand for electricity can be answered by a mathematical discovery Image: The Economist
DURBAN - A mathematical finding by computer programmers who used a 350-year-old equation to find a record-breaking number, may also offer solutions to bitcoin's out-sized demand for electricity.

The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search discovered and confirmed the largest-known prime number. The prime number is a 23 million digit long figure that was discovered using the math of 16th-century French monk, Marin Mersenne earlier this month.

The work, together with other collaborative computing methods, are pushing forward the science of cryptography, which is important to creating and tracking bitcoins. Seth Schoen, a senior technologist at San Francisco's Electronic Frontier Foundation said, "these ideas could be seen as intellectually connected".

The foundation is offering a $150000 bounty for the first person or group of people that can discover a 100 million digit prime number.

"Cryptocurrency mining could be seen as an indirect descendant of distributed computing projects".

The process of looking for a prime number, which is the bedrock of cryptography, shows how solving tedious equations can lead to scientific advancements which have practical applications.

The meteoric rise of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is rousing debate at the topmost levels of monetary policymaking.

Adherents are betting that trust in its blockchain technology for tracking transactions will revolutionise how value is stored and transmitted.

Critics point to the enormous energy used by computers that are used to solve the mundane mathematical equations that keep the system going.

Bitcoin has a future

Energy has been a part of bitcoin's DNA. The individual credited with creating bitcoin, recognised as Satoshi Nakamoto, conceived the system that awards virtual coins for solving complex puzzles and utilises an encrypted digital ledger to track all the work and every transaction.

"According to Schoen, this energy is put to a productive use in one sense, validating the authenticity of bitcoin transactions.

"Yet it seems disproportionate in many ways, particularly if another technical alternative could be found for confirming transactions while using much less energy".

The EFF technologist, who has been active in encryption for the past 20 years, stressed that it's the collaborative procedures used in discovering very large prime numbers rather than the figures themselves that have the largest effect on cryptography.

Until the arrival of quantum computing, most people are safe with a three digit encryption said, Schoen.

A search for a concession is accelerating. Some researchers are trying to decrease the energy required for computer processing. Others have been tying cryptocurrency mining to math that solves real world issues.

An example is gridcoin, a cryptocurrency mined by a global network of in excess 23000 computers which are linked to scientists at the University of California at Berkeley.

Gridcoins are awarded in return for joining the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networking Computing or BIONIC.

According to their website that work "may lead to advances in medicine, biology, mathematics, science, climatology, particle and astrophysics".

The website also notes that the energy required to mine gridcoin is a portion of what bitcoin needs. Any new alternative still will battle to overcome bitcoin's advantage as first mover among digital currencies.

"It’s clearer to see how the existence of bitcoin is making people better off" Schoen said.

"But it would definitely be interesting to see if cryptocurrencies in the future can align interests better by using proof-of-work problems with side effects that help solve other problems".