Bitcoin is eating Quebec

Photo credit: Andreas Trojak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Article by Kathryn Miles for MIT Technology Review | Posted May 14, 2018

At first glance, nothing looks particularly cutting-edge about this aging industrial park in Saint-­Hyacinthe, Quebec, about 60 miles east of Montreal. The air is thick with the smell of roasting cacao, which billows from a massive chocolate factory and seeps into tractor-­trailers and forgotten offices. Nearby, an audiovisual repair shop and an agricultural lab specializing in the detection of livestock pathogens vie for space with a massive disused dairy processing plant. Tucked behind all three sits a worn, low-slung building that previously served as a warehouse for a soup company and, before that, a factory producing diapers. You might think it, too, had since been forgotten, were it not for the plastic sheeting hinting at new construction inside and the small fleet of shining company cars stationed in the parking lot. But the biggest clue of all that something both new and decidedly high-tech is happening here can be heard while standing next to those cars: an omnipresent hum, audible well outside the building, created by thousands of computers, each one completing the same singular task again and again and again, day after day, without change or interruption.

These computers are the property of Bitfarms, one of North America’s largest cryptocurrency mining operations. Here in the once-abandoned factory, about 7,000 shoebox-size machines (as of April, but that’s expected to rise to 14,000 by July) sit tightly shelved in a single floor-to-ceiling row that bisects the building. On one side of the stacks, a mess of wires and routers exiting the rear of each computer sits exposed to the cold Canadian air. On the other, thousands of identical fans roar as they push hot air past a heap of empty cardboard boxes and into the otherwise vacant space. A handful of busy employees move between the two sides wearing thin T-shirts and jeans, their faces flushed. Even on a raw, gray day, the heat on the fan side is stifling.

These computers, often called “rigs,” are purpose-built. Able to withstand dramatic shifts in temperature and humidity, they are singularly programmed not only to perform just one computation trillions of times each second, but to repeat those computations around the clock and without pause. They are also energy hogs: the 7,000 in Saint-Hyacinthe alone consistently draw more energy than the Montreal Canadiens’ nearby hockey arena, even on a sold-out game night.

Read more at MIT Technology Review.