Why Ethereum’s ‘difficulty bomb’ delay is bad news for energy efficiency

The code will swiftly increase the computing difficulty of mining the underlying token

The difficulty bomb is designed to slowly boot miners off the Ethereum blockchain network. Reuters
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Ethereum’s big transition to a more energy-efficient system that developers have been promising for years could be kicked down the road yet again as they plan to delay a so-called "difficulty bomb" that’s designed to slowly boot miners off the blockchain.

The difficulty bomb, which is a special code that’s always been a part of Ethereum, swiftly increases the computing difficulty of mining the underlying token, eventually making it impossible to do so.

When the bomb goes off and is allowed to run its course, it’s an indication that the days until the so-called Merge — Ethereum’s switch to the proof-of-stake system for ordering transactions — are numbered.

In proof of stake, people stake coins to order the transaction, a process which is supposed to consume 99 per cent less power.

Developers decided to delay the difficulty bomb on Friday after they discussed ironing out various bugs they’ve discovered when they ran the software for the Merge on Ropsten, one of the oldest testnets of the network.

While developers hadn’t officially set a particular date for the Merge — Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin said it could happen as soon as August if there are no major issues — the decision to push back the difficulty bomb raises fears that the much-anticipated upgrade could take more time.

“Delaying it gives you time,” said Thomas Jay Rush, a participant in the call. “It looks bad to the community, but there’s nothing you can do about that.”

The difficulty bomb had been delayed multiple times before. Though it went off this month, developers are planning to disable it and then deploy it again at another time. It is unclear when they’d do so. Many hoped it wouldn’t have to be delayed, as the Merge would happen soon.

The Merge could be pushed back to September or October if developers need more time, Mr Buterin said last month.

There’s only a 1 per cent to 10 per cent chance that the Merge won’t happen this year, Tim Beiko, who co-ordinates Ethereum developers, said in a recent interview with Bloomberg.

During the Friday call, developers emphasised the difficulty bomb delay has no implications for the timing of the Merge.

Mr Beiko, who also facilitated the Friday call, said he is worried about developer burnout if they rush to get the Merge done without delaying the difficulty bomb for a reasonable amount of time.

“If we do delay this, I think it should be a realistic delay to still maintain a sense of urgency,” Mr Beiko said. “But too much pressure pushes teams to burn out, that’s also a situation we don’t want to be in.”

The potential delay dampens the excitement around the Merge after the developers carried out the upgrade on Ropsten on Wednesday.

Since it’s one of the oldest testnets for Ethereum, Ropsten is able to provide one of the most realistic technical environments to test out the Merge, check for bugs, and evaluate the outcome of the final process. Developers have uncovered a number of issues in the test so far.

“Maybe we are not quite at the mainnet code,” Mr Beiko said on the call.

The second largest token by market value after Bitcoin declined as much as 6.4 per cent on Friday and has plummeted about 66 per cent from its record high in November 2021. Ether traded at $1,673 on Friday evening.

Updated: June 12, 2022, 3:30 AM
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