The process of mining bitcoins works like a lottery. Bitcoin miners are competing to produce hashes—alphanumeric strings of a fixed length that are calculated from data of an arbitrary length. They’re producing the hashes from a combination of three pieces of data: new blocks of Bitcoin transactions; the last block on the blockchain; and a random number. These are collectively referred to as the “block header” for the current block. Each time miners perform the hash function on the block header with a new random number, they get a new result. To win the lottery, a miner must find a hash that begins with a certain number of zeroes. Just how many zeroes are required is a shifting parameter determined by how much computing power is attached to the Bitcoin network. Every two weeks, on average, the mining software automatically readjusts the number of leading zeros needed—the difficulty level—by looking at how fast new blocks of Bitcoin transactions were added. The algorithm is aiming for a latency of 10 minutes between blocks. When miners boost the computing power on the network, they temporarily increase the rate of block creation. The network senses the change and then ratchets up the difficulty level. When a miner’s computer finds a winning hash, it broadcasts the block header to its next peers in the Bitcoin network, which check it and then propagate it further.
The bitcoin network is a peer-to-peer payment network that operates on a cryptographic protocol. Users send and receive bitcoins, the units of currency, by broadcasting digitally signed messages to the network using bitcoin cryptocurrency wallet software. Transactions are recorded into a distributed, replicated public database known as the blockchain, with consensus achieved by a proof-of-work system called mining. Satoshi Nakamoto, the designer of bitcoin claimed that design and coding of bitcoin began in 2007. The project was released in 2009 as open source software.
With no ties to a national economy and lofty goals, Bitcoin's price is famously volatile. Prices have soared and plummeted in the wake of various national policies, financial deals, competing cryptocurrencies, and fluctuating public opinion. On the other hand, as many sovereign nations find themselves with currencies that are also vulnerable, the citizens of countries such as China and Venezuela are turning increasingly to virtual currencies.
That’s all transactions are—people signing bitcoins (or fractions of bitcoins) over to each other. The ledger tracks the coins, but it does not track people, at least not explicitly. Assuming Bob creates a new address and key for each transaction, the ledger won’t be able to reveal who he is, or which addresses are his, or how many bitcoins he has in all. It’s just a record of money moving between anonymous hands.
Wallets and similar software technically handle all bitcoins as equivalent, establishing the basic level of fungibility. Researchers have pointed out that the history of each bitcoin is registered and publicly available in the blockchain ledger, and that some users may refuse to accept bitcoins coming from controversial transactions, which would harm bitcoin's fungibility.
A few miles from the shuttered carwash, David Carlson stands at the edge of a sprawling construction site and watches workers set the roof on a Giga Pod, a self-contained crypto mine that Carlson designed to be assembled in a matter of weeks. When finished, the prefabricated wood-frame structure, roughly 12 by 48 feet, will be equipped with hundreds of high-speed servers that collectively draw a little over a megawatt of power and, in theory, will be capable of producing around 80 bitcoins a month. Carlson himself won’t be the miner; his company, Giga-Watt, will run the pod as a hosting site for other miners. By summer, Giga-Watt expects to have 24 pods here churning out bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, most of which use the same computing-intensive, cryptographically secured protocol called the blockchain. “We’re right where the rubber hits the road with blockchain,” Carlson shouts as we step inside the project’s first completed pod and stand between the tall rack of toaster-size servers and a bank of roaring cooling fans. The main use of blockchain technology now is to keep a growing electronic ledger of every single bitcoin transaction ever made. But many miners see it as the record-keeping mechanism of the future. “We’re where the blockchain goes from that virtual concept to something that’s real in the world,” says Carlson, “something that somebody had to build and is actually running.”
During mining, your Bitcoin mining hardware runs a cryptographic hashing function (two rounds of SHA256) on what is called a block header. For each new hash that is tried, the mining software will use a different number as the random element of the block header, this number is called the nonce. Depending on the nonce and what else is in the block the hashing function will yield a hash which looks something like this:
Despite having similar needs, there is a good deal of diversity in how chip designers build their hashing engines, says Hanke, who also served as the chief technology officer of a now-defunct mining rig manufacturer called CoinTerra. For example, Bitmain uses pipelining—a strategy that links the steps in a process into a chain in which the output of one step is the input of the next. Bitmain competitor BitFury has chosen not to use that technology.
Nor was it simply the deep pockets. At these prices, even smaller operators have been able to make real money running a few machines in home-based, under-the-radar mines. Take the 20-something Wenatchee man we’ll call “Benny”—he didn’t want to be identified—who last July bought three mining servers, set them up in his house (one in the master bedroom and two in the living room)—and began mining Ethereum, bitcoin’s closest cryptocurrency rival. As Ethereum climbed from $165 in July to nearly $1,200 in January, Benny had not only repaid his $7,000 investment but was making enough to pay his mortgage. As a side benefit, this winter, Benny’s power bill went down: The waste heat from the three churning servers kept the house at a toasty 78 degrees. “We actually have to open the windows,” he told me in January. His servers, meanwhile, pretty much run themselves—although, when he’s at work, clerking at a grocery, he monitors the machines, and the Ethereum price, on his phone. “It’s just basically free money,” Benny says. “All I have to do is wake up in the morning and make sure nothing crashed during the night.”
The proof-of-work system, alongside the chaining of blocks, makes modifications of the blockchain extremely hard, as an attacker must modify all subsequent blocks in order for the modifications of one block to be accepted. As new blocks are mined all the time, the difficulty of modifying a block increases as time passes and the number of subsequent blocks (also called confirmations of the given block) increases.
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
“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.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.