The price of bitcoins has gone through cycles of appreciation and depreciation referred to by some as bubbles and busts. In 2011, the value of one bitcoin rapidly rose from about US$0.30 to US$32 before returning to US$2. In the latter half of 2012 and during the 2012–13 Cypriot financial crisis, the bitcoin price began to rise, reaching a high of US$266 on 10 April 2013, before crashing to around US$50. On 29 November 2013, the cost of one bitcoin rose to a peak of US$1,242. In 2014, the price fell sharply, and as of April remained depressed at little more than half 2013 prices. As of August 2014 it was under US$600. During their time as bitcoin developers, Gavin Andresen and Mike Hearn warned that bubbles may occur.
To lower the costs, bitcoin miners have set up in places like Iceland where geothermal energy is cheap and cooling Arctic air is free. Bitcoin miners are known to use hydroelectric power in Tibet, Quebec, Washington (state), and Austria to reduce electricity costs. Miners are attracted to suppliers such as Hydro Quebec that have energy surpluses. According to a University of Cambridge study, much of bitcoin mining is done in China, where electricity is subsidized by the government.
In the blockchain, bitcoins are registered to bitcoin addresses. Creating a bitcoin address requires nothing more than picking a random valid private key and computing the corresponding bitcoin address. This computation can be done in a split second. But the reverse, computing the private key of a given bitcoin address, is mathematically unfeasible. Users can tell others or make public a bitcoin address without compromising its corresponding private key. Moreover, the number of valid private keys is so vast that it is extremely unlikely someone will compute a key-pair that is already in use and has funds. The vast number of valid private keys makes it unfeasible that brute force could be used to compromise a private key. To be able to spend their bitcoins, the owner must know the corresponding private key and digitally sign the transaction. The network verifies the signature using the public key.:ch. 5
The difficulty is a number that regulates how long it takes for miners to add new blocks of transactions to the blockchain. Because the target is such an unwieldy number with tons of digits, people generally use a simpler number to express the current target. This number is called the mining difficulty. This difficulty value updates every 2 weeks to ensure that it takes 10 minutes (on average) to add a new block to the blockchain. The difficulty is so important because, it ensures that blocks of transactions are added to the blockchain at regular intervals, even as more miners join the network. If the difficulty remained the same, it would take less time between adding new blocks to the blockchain as new miners join the network. The difficulty adjusts every 2016 blocks. At this interval, each node takes the expected time for these 2016 blocks to be mined (2016 x 10 minutes), and divides it by the actual time it took. It can be calculated as follows:
Bitcoin solves the "double spending problem" of electronic currencies (in which digital assets can easily be copied and re-used) through an ingenious combination of cryptography and economic incentives. In electronic fiat currencies, this function is fulfilled by banks, which gives them control over the traditional system. With bitcoin, the integrity of the transactions is maintained by a distributed and open network, owned by no-one.
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.
But, as always, the miners’ biggest challenge came from bitcoin itself. The mere presence of so much new mining in the Mid-Columbia Basin substantially expanded the network’s total mining power; for a time, Carlson’s mine alone accounted for a quarter of the global bitcoin mining capacity. But this rising calculating power also caused mining difficulty to skyrocket—from January 2013 to January 2014, it increased one thousandfold—which forced miners to expand even faster. And bitcoin’s rising price was now drawing in new miners, especially in China, where power is cheap. By the middle of 2014, Carlson says, he’d quadrupled the number of servers in his mine, yet had seen his once-massive share of the market fall below 1 percent.
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.
Bitcoin mining operations take a lot of effort and power, and the sheer amount of competition makes it difficult for newcomers to enter the race and profit. A new miner would not only need to have adequate computing power and the knowledge to use it to outcompete the competition, but would also need the extensive amount of capital necessary to fund the operations.
Nakamoto is estimated to have mined one million bitcoins before disappearing in 2010, when he handed the network alert key and control of the code repository over to Gavin Andresen. Andresen later became lead developer at the Bitcoin Foundation. Andresen then sought to decentralize control. This left opportunity for controversy to develop over the future development path of bitcoin.