Zhang walks up to a door between two shelves full of mining rigs, and we step through. “This is the hot side,” he tells me. We’re standing in an empty, brightly lit space that serves as the heat dump for the facility. The exhaust fans from all the mining machines on the other side are poking out through little holes in a metal wall, blasting hot air into the space, where it gets purged to the outside by another wall full of giant metal fans.
In addition to being the means of generating new bitcoin, bitcoin mining creates the blockchain that verifies bitcoin transactions. The block reward is gleaned by placing a new block on the blockchain, which acts as an advancing public ledger of verified transaction. This is an essential function for bitcoin's operation as it enables the currency to be safely and predictably created without the centralized regulation in the form of a bank or federal government. Blocks must to be a validated by a proof-of-work (Bitcoin uses Hashcash), which can only be obtained by expending a great deal of processing power. Once a block is obtained a message is broadcast to the mining network and verified by all recipients.
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.
Technically, during mining, the Bitcoin mining software runs two rounds of SHA256 cryptographic hashing function on the block header. The mining software uses different numbers called the nonce as the random element of the block header for each new hash that is tried. Depending on the nonce and what else is in the block the hashing function will yield a hash of a 64-bit hexadecimal number. To create a valid block, the mining software has to find a hash that is below the difficulty target.
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At this point, the actual mining begins. In essence, each miner now tries to demonstrate to the rest of the network that his or her block of verified payments is the one true block, which will serve as the permanent record of those 2,000 or so transactions. Miners do this by, essentially, trying to be the first to guess their block’s numerical password. It’s analogous to trying to randomly guess someone’s computer password, except on a vastly larger scale. Carlson’s first mining computer, or “rig,” which he ran out of his basement north of Seattle, could make 12 billion “guesses” every second; today’s servers are more than a thousand times faster.
Speculation drives numbers. Many Bitcoin users are holding onto their bitcoins in hopes of selling them off for an enormous profit one day. With news articles portraying Bitcoin millionaires as lucky kids who got in early, you can’t really blame them. For example, if you had spent your $5 latte money on 2,000 bitcoins one morning in 2010, they would be worth about $5.4 million today. Makes you really wish you’d managed your Starbucks budget better, doesn’t it?