Anyone who can run the mining program on the specially designed hardware can participate in mining. Over the years, many computer hardware manufacturers have designed specialized Bitcoin mining hardware that can process transactions and build blocks much more quickly and efficiently than regular computers, since the faster the hardware can guess at random, the higher its chances of solving the puzzle, therefore mining a block.
But not everyone is going along for the ride. Back in East Wenatchee, Miehe is giving me an impromptu tour of the epicenter of the basin’s boom. We drive out to the industrial park by the regional airport, where the Douglas County Port Authority has created a kind of mining zone. We roll past Carlson’s construction site, which is swarming with equipment and men. Not far away, we can see a cluster of maybe two dozen cargo containers that Salcido has converted into mines, with transformers and cooling systems. Across the highway, near the new, already-tapped out substation, Salcido has another crew working a much larger mine. “A year ago, none of this was here,” Miehe says. “This road wasn’t here.”
While heat is definitely an issue for the mining farm in Ordos, the electricity there is dirt cheap, only 4 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, with government subsidies. That’s about one-fifth of the average price in the United Kingdom. The only other costs for the facility are the rigs themselves and the salary of the few dozen staff that keeps them operational.
“Cryptojacking scams have continued to evolve, and they don’t even need you to install anything,” Jason Adler, an assistant director for the Federal Trade Commission, wrote in a blog post in June. “Scammers can use malicious code embedded in a website or an ad to infect your device. Then they can help themselves to your device’s processor without you even knowing.”
Bitcoin is an increasingly popular cryptocurrency that utilizes blockchain technology to facilitate transactions. Basically, a user obtains a Bitcoin wallet that can be used for storing bitcoins and both sending and receiving of payments. The blockchain technology used by Bitcoin is really just a shared public ledger that is used by the entire public network. The technology used is secured through cryptography, a branch of mathematics that provides a highly secure means of facilitating and recording transactions on the network.
Meanwhile, the miners in the basin have embarked on some image polishing. Carlson and Salcido, in particular, have worked hard to placate utility officialdom. Miners have agreed to pay heavy hook-up fees and to finance some of the needed infrastructure upgrades. They’ve also labored to build a case for the sector’s broader economic benefits—like sales tax revenues. They say mining could help offset some of the hundreds of jobs lost when the region’s other big power user—the huge Alcoa aluminum smelter just south of Wenatchee—was idled a few years ago.
An ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) is a microchip designed for a special application, such as a particular kind of transmission protocol or a hand-held computer. An ASIC is a chip designed specifically to do only one task. Unlike FPGAs, an ASIC cannot be repurposed to perform other tasks. An ASIC designed to mine Bitcoins can only mine Bitcoins and will only ever mine Bitcoins. The inflexibility of an ASIC is offset by the fact that it offers a 100x increase in hashing power compared to the CPU and GPUs, while reducing power consumption compared to all the previous technologies.
That constraint is what makes the problem more or less difficult. More leading zeroes means fewer possible solutions, and more time required to solve the problem. Every 2,016 blocks (roughly two weeks), that difficulty is reset. If it took miners less than 10 minutes on average to solve those 2,016 blocks, then the difficulty is automatically increased. If it took longer, then the difficulty is decreased.
Bitcoin mining is so called because it resembles the mining of other commodities: it requires exertion and it slowly makes new units available to anybody who wishes to take part. An important difference is that the supply does not depend on the amount of mining. In general changing total miner hashpower does not change how many bitcoins are created over the long term.
Bitcoin is one of the first digital currencies to use peer-to-peer technology to facilitate instant payments. The independent individuals and companies who own the governing computing power and participate in the Bitcoin network, also known as "miners," are motivated by rewards (the release of new bitcoin) and transaction fees paid in bitcoin. These miners can be thought of as the decentralized authority enforcing the credibility of the Bitcoin network. New bitcoin is being released to the miners at a fixed, but periodically declining rate, such that the total supply of bitcoins approaches 21 million. One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionth of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a Satoshi. If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.
On paper, the Mid-Columbia Basin really did look like El Dorado for Carlson and the other miners who began to trickle in during the first years of the boom. The region’s five huge hydroelectric dams, all owned by public utility districts, generate nearly six times as much power as the region’s residents and businesses can use. Most of the surplus is exported, at high prices, to markets like Seattle or Los Angeles, which allows the utilities to sell power locally at well below its cost of production. Power is so cheap here that people heat their homes with electricity, despite bitterly cold winters, and farmers have been able to irrigate the semi-arid region into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. (The local newspaper proudly claims to be published in “the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle on the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.”) And, importantly, it had already attracted several power-hungry industries, notably aluminum smelting and, starting in the mid-2000s, data centers for tech giants like Microsoft and Intuit.
The primary purpose of mining is to allow Bitcoin nodes to reach a secure, tamper-resistant consensus. Mining is also the mechanism used to introduce bitcoins into the system. Miners are paid transaction fees as well as a subsidy of newly created coins, called block rewards. This both serves the purpose of disseminating new coins in a decentralized manner as well as motivating people to provide security for the system through mining.
Let’s start with what it’s not doing. Your computer is not blasting through the cavernous depths of the internet in search of digital ore that can be fashioned into bitcoin bullion. There is no ore, and bitcoin mining doesn’t involve extracting or smelting anything. It’s called mining only because the people who do it are the ones who get new bitcoins, and because bitcoin is a finite resource liberated in small amounts over time, like gold, or anything else that is mined. (The size of each batch of coins drops by half roughly every four years, and around 2140, it will be cut to zero, capping the total number of bitcoins in circulation at 21 million.) But the analogy ends there.
Electrum gets high marks for its ease of use and user interface, which is always nice, but the real reason it's the best bitcoin wallet for desktop is its safety and reliability. Like any desktop wallet that's worth its salt, users get to control their private key; Electrum doesn't know what it is. Since your private key, a long string of letters and numbers, gives you access to your bitcoin, you need to keep that, you know, private.
In exchange for securing the network, and as the “lottery price” that serves as an incentive for burning this energy, each new block includes a special transaction. It’s this transaction that awards the miner with new bitcoins, which is how bitcoins first come into circulation. At Bitcoin’s launch, each new block awarded the miner with 50 bitcoins, and this amount halves every four years: Currently each block includes 12.5 new bitcoins. Additionally, miners get to keep any mining fees that were attached to the transactions they included in their blocks.
With the Antminers needing to stay below 38 °C, Mongolia is not the ideal location for a mining facility. It had been above 40 °C for several days when I visited in July. And in the winter, it can fall to –20 °C, cold enough for Bitmain to add insulation to the facilities. Dust is a problem as well, which is why the interior of every warehouse I walk through is veiled in a fine fabric filter.
“It’s a real testament to Bitmain that they’ve been able to fend off the competition they have fended off. But still, you haven’t seen an Intel and a Nvidia go full hog into this sector, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if they did,” says Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics who compiled a miner survey with the University of Cambridge.
Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, they did. As mining costs were rising, bitcoin prices began to dive. The cryptocurrency was getting hammered by a string of scams, thefts and regulatory bans, along with a lot of infighting among the mining community over things like optimal block size. Through 2015, bitcoin prices hovered in the low hundreds. Margins grew so thin—and, in fact, occasionally went negative—that miners had to spend their coins as soon as they mined them to pay their power bills. Things eventually got so grim that Carlson had to dig into his precious reserves and liquidate “all my little stacks of bitcoin,” he recalls, ruefully. “To save the business, we sold it all.”
Instead, the ledger is broken up into blocks: discrete transaction logs that contain 10 minutes worth of bitcoin activity apiece. Every block includes a reference to the block that came before it, and you can follow the links backward from the most recent block to the very first block, when bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto conjured the first bitcoins into existence.