Even in the recent price crash, the miners have maintained their upbeat attitude, in part because they’ve died this death a few times before. In February, a day after bitcoin’s price dipped below $6,000, I checked in with Carlson to see how he was dealing with the huge sell-off. In a series of long texts, he expressed only optimism. The market correction, he argued, had been inevitable, given the rapid price increase. He noted that mining costs in the basin remain so low—still just a little above $2,000 per coin—that prices have a way to fall before bitcoin stops being worth mining there. Carlson is, he told me, “100 percent confident” the price will surpass the $20,000 level we saw before Christmas. “The question, as always, is how long will it take.”
Bitcoin’s first mover advantage, popularity, and network effect has cemented it as the most popular cryptocurrency with the largest market cap. Rivals like Litecoin may have numerous technical advantages over Bitcoin’s algorithm (see more about that here), but they only hold a fraction of Bitcoin’s market cap and their dwindling communities largely consist of loyalists, speculators, and antagonistic anti-Bitcoin buyers.
So that’s Bitcoin mining in a nutshell. It’s called mining because of the fact that this process helps “mine” new Bitcoins from the system. But if you think about it, the mining part is just a by-product of the transaction confirmation process. So the name is a bit misleading, since the main goal of mining is to maintain the ledger in a decentralized manner.
Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency: Balances are kept using public and private "keys," which are long strings of numbers and letters linked through the mathematical encryption algorithm that was used to create them. The public key (comparable to a bank account number) serves as the address which is published to the world and to which others may send bitcoins. The private key (comparable to an ATM PIN) is meant to be a guarded secret, and only used to authorize Bitcoin transmissions.
Because it's similar to gold mining in that the bitcoins exist in the protocol's design (just as the gold exists underground), but they haven't been brought out into the light yet (just as the gold hasn't yet been dug up). The bitcoin protocol stipulates that 21 million bitcoins will exist at some point. What "miners" do is bring them out into the light, a few at a time.
Of course, by the end of 2017, the players who were pouring into the basin weren’t interested in building 5-megawatt mines. According to Carlson, mining has now reached the stage where the minimum size for a new commercial mine, given the high levels of difficulty, will soon be 50 megawatts, enough for around 22,000 homes and bigger than one of Amazon Web Services’ immense data centers. Miehe, who has become a kind of broker for out-of-town miners and investors, was fielding calls and emails from much larger players. There were calls from China, where a recent government crackdown on cryptocurrency has miners trying to move operations as large as 200 megawatts to safer ground. And there was a flood of interest from players outside the sector, including big institutional investors from Wall Street, Miami, the Middle East, Europe and Japan, all eager to get in on a commodity that some believe could touch $100,000 by the end of the year. And not all the interest has been so civil. Stories abound of bitcoin miners using hardball tactics to get their mines up and running. Carlson, for example, says some foreign miners tried to bribe building and safety inspectors to let them cut corners on construction. “They are bringing suitcases full of cash,” Carlson says, adding that such ploys invariably backfire. Adds Miehe, “I mean, you know how they talk about the animal spirits—greed and fear? Well, right now, everyone is in full-greed mode.”
Keys come in pairs. The public key is used to encrypt the message whereas the private key decrypts the message. The only person with the private key is you. Everyone else is free to have your public key. As a result, everyone can send you encrypted messages without having to agree on a key beforehand. They simply use your public key and you untangle the gibberish by using your private key.
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
Charts can be a very useful tool for those looking to trade or invest in Bitcoin. Prices are available on numerous time frames, from as little as a minute to monthly or yearly charts. Short term traders may use shorter-term charts to try to profit from buying and selling of Bitcoin. Long-term investors may use charts to try to identify areas f support and resistance. When the market declines into support levels, investors may see that as a solid buying opportunity and look to buy Bitcoin on dips.
These dynamics have resulted in a race among miners to amass the fastest, most energy-efficient chips. And the demand for faster equipment has spawned a new industry devoted entirely to the computational needs of Bitcoin miners. Until late 2013, generic graphics cards and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were powerful enough to put you in the race. But that same year companies began to sell computer chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), which are specifically designed for the task of computing the Bitcoin hashing algorithm. Today, ASICs are the standard technology found in every large-scale facility, including the mining farm in Ordos. When Bitmain first started making ASICs in 2013, the field was thick with competitors—BitFury, a multinational ASIC maker; KnCMiner in Stockholm; Butterfly Labs in the United States; Canaan Creative in Beijing; and about 20 other companies spread around China.
While senders of traditional electronic payments are usually identified (for verification purposes, and to comply with anti-money laundering and other legislation), users of bitcoin in theory operate in semi-anonymity. Since there is no central "validator," users do not need to identify themselves when sending bitcoin to another user. When a transaction request is submitted, the protocol checks all previous transactions to confirm that the sender has the necessary bitcoin as well as the authority to send them. The system does not need to know his or her identity.
Difficulty increase per year: This is probably the most important and elusive variable of them all. The idea is that since no one can actually predict the rate of miners joining the network, neither can anyone predict how difficult it will be to mine in six weeks, six months, or six years from now. In fact, in all the time Bitcoin has existed, its profitability has dropped only a handful of times—even at times when the price was relatively low.
Researchers have pointed out at a "trend towards centralization". Although bitcoin can be sent directly to the bitcoin network, in practice intermediaries are widely used.:220–222 Bitcoin miners join large mining pools to minimize the variance of their income.:215, 219–222:3 Because transactions on the network are confirmed by miners, decentralization of the network requires that no single miner or mining pool obtains 51% of the hashing power, which would allow them to double-spend coins, prevent certain transactions from being verified and prevent other miners from earning income. As of 2013 just six mining pools controlled 75% of overall bitcoin hashing power. In 2014 mining pool Ghash.io obtained 51% hashing power which raised significant controversies about the safety of the network. The pool has voluntarily capped their hashing power at 39.99% and requested other pools to act responsibly for the benefit of the whole network.
To save money on cooling, some mine operators have opted for cooler climates. BitFury also runs three large mining facilities, one of which is in Iceland to benefit from the cool weather. “Many data centers around the world have 30 to 40 percent of electricity costs going to cooling,” explains Valery Vavilov, the CEO of BitFury. “This is not an issue in our Iceland data center.”
This is the most basic version of dividing payments. This method shifts the risk to the pool, guaranteeing payment for each share that’s contributed. Thus, each miner is guaranteed an instant payout. Miners are paid out from the pool’s existing balance, allowing for the least possible variance in payment. However, for this type of model to work, it requires a very large reserve of 10,000 BTC to cover any unexpected streaks of bad luck.
Network nodes can validate transactions, add them to their copy of the ledger, and then broadcast these ledger additions to other nodes. To achieve independent verification of the chain of ownership each network node stores its own copy of the blockchain. About every 10 minutes, a new group of accepted transactions, called a block, is created, added to the blockchain, and quickly published to all nodes, without requiring central oversight. This allows bitcoin software to determine when a particular bitcoin was spent, which is needed to prevent double-spending. A conventional ledger records the transfers of actual bills or promissory notes that exist apart from it, but the blockchain is the only place that bitcoins can be said to exist in the form of unspent outputs of transactions.:ch. 5