There are no physical bitcoins, only balances kept on a public ledger in the cloud, that – along with all Bitcoin transactions – is verified by a massive amount of computing power. Bitcoins are not issued or backed by any banks or governments, nor are individual bitcoins valuable as a commodity. Despite its not being legal tender, Bitcoin charts high on popularity, and has triggered the launch of other virtual currencies collectively referred to as Altcoins.
To add a new block to the chain, a miner has to finish what’s called a cryptographic proof-of-work problem. Such problems are impossible to solve without applying a ton of brute computing force, so if you have a solution in hand, it’s proof that you’ve done a certain quantity of computational work. The computational problem is different for every block in the chain, and it involves a particular kind of algorithm called a hash function.
The place was relatively easy to find. Less than three hours east of Seattle, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, you could buy electricity for around 2.5 cents per kilowatt, which was a quarter of Seattle’s rate and around a fifth of the national average. Carlson’s dream began to fall into place. He found an engineer in Poland who had just developed a much faster, more energy-efficient server, and whom he persuaded to back Carlson’s new venture, then called Mega-BigPower. In late 2012, Carlson found some empty retail space in the city of Wenatchee, just a few blocks from the Columbia River, and began to experiment with configurations of servers and cooling systems until he found something he could scale up into the biggest bitcoin mine in the world. The boom here had officially begun.
Each block that is added to the blockchain, starting with the block containing a given transaction, is called a confirmation of that transaction. Ideally, merchants and services that receive payment in bitcoin should wait for at least one confirmation to be distributed over the network, before assuming that the payment was done. The more confirmations that the merchant waits for, the more difficult it is for an attacker to successfully reverse the transaction in a blockchain—unless the attacker controls more than half the total network power, in which case it is called a 51% attack.
For years, few residents really grasped how appealing their region was to miners, who mainly did their esoteric calculations quietly tucked away in warehouses and basements. But those days are gone. Over the past two years, and especially during 2017, when the price of a single bitcoin jumped from $1,000 to more than $19,000, the region has taken on the vibe of a boomtown. Across the three rural counties of the Mid-Columbia Basin—Chelan, Douglas and Grant—orchards and farm fields now share the rolling landscape with mines of every size, from industrial-scale facilities to repurposed warehouses to cargo containers and even backyard sheds. Outsiders are so eager to turn the basin’s power into cryptocurrency that this winter, several would-be miners from Asia flew their private jet into the local airport, took a rental car to one of the local dams, and, according to a utility official, politely informed staff at the dam visitors center, “We want to see the dam master because we want to buy some electricity.”
Price fluctuations, which have been common in Bitcoin since the day it was created eight years ago, saddle miners with risk and uncertainty. And that burden is shared by chip manufacturers, especially ones like Bitmain, which invest the time and money in a full custom design. According to Nishant Sharma, the international marketing manager at Bitmain, when the price of bitcoin was breaking records this spring, sales of S9 rigs doubled. But again, that is not a trend the company can afford to bet on.
Full clients verify transactions directly by downloading a full copy of the blockchain (over 150 GB As of January 2018). They are the most secure and reliable way of using the network, as trust in external parties is not required. Full clients check the validity of mined blocks, preventing them from transacting on a chain that breaks or alters network rules. Because of its size and complexity, downloading and verifying the entire blockchain is not suitable for all computing devices.