Bitcoin Mining, Explained
Chances, you hear the phrase “bitcoin mining” and your mind begins to wander to the Western fantasy of pickaxes, dirt and striking it rich. As it turns out, that analogy isn’t too far off.
Far less glamorous but equally uncertain, bitcoin mining is performed by high-powered computers that solve complex computational math problems (that is, so complex that they cannot be solved by hand, and indeed complicated enough to tax even incredibly powerful computers). The luck and work required by a computer to solve one of these problems is the equivalent of a miner striking gold in the ground — while digging in a sandbox. At the time of writing, the chance of a computer solving one of these problems is about 1 in 13 trillion, but more on that later.
The result of “bitcoin mining” is twofold. First, when computers solve these complex math problems on the Bitcoin network, they produce new bitcoin (when referring to the individual coins themselves, “bitcoin” typically appears without capitalization), not unlike when a mining operation extracts gold from the ground. And second, by solving computational math problems, bitcoin miners make the Bitcoin payment network trustworthy and secure, by verifying its transaction information.
There’s a good chance all of that only made so much sense. In order to explain how bitcoin mining works in greater detail, let’s begin with a process that’s a little bit closer to home: the regulation of printed currency.
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Bitcoin Basics: How Bitcoin Differs From Traditional Currencies
Consumers tend to trust printed currencies, at least in the United States. That’s because the U.S. dollar is backed by a central bank called the Federal Reserve. In addition to a host of other responsibilities, the Federal Reserve regulates the production of new money, and the federal government prosecutes the use of counterfeit currency.
Even digital payments using the U.S. dollar are backed by a central authority. When you make an online purchase using your debit or credit card, for example, that transaction is processed by a payment processing company such as Mastercard or Visa. In addition to recording your transaction history, those companies verify that transactions are not fraudulent, which is one reason your debit or credit card may be suspended while traveling.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, is not regulated by a central authority. Instead, Bitcoin is backed by millions of computers across the world called “nodes.” This network of computers performs the same function as the Federal Reserve, Visa and Mastercard, but with a few key differences. Nodes store information about prior transactions and help to verify their authenticity. Unlike those central authorities, however, Bitcoin nodes are spread out across the world and record transaction data in a public list that can be accessed by anyone, even you.
Is Bitcoin Mining Sustainable?
Between 1 in 13 trillion odds, scaling difficulty levels, and the massive network of users verifying transactions, one block of transactions is verified roughly every 10 minutes. But it’s important to remember that 10 minutes is a goal, not a rule.
The bitcoin network can process about seven transactions per second, with transactions being logged in the blockchain every 10 minutes. For comparison, Visa can process somewhere around 24,000 transactions per second. As the network of bitcoin users continues to grow, however, the number of transactions made in 10 minutes will eventually exceed the number of transactions that can be processed in 10 minutes. At that point, waiting times for transactions will begin and continue to get longer, unless a change is made to the bitcoin protocol.
This issue at the heart of the bitcoin protocol is known as “scaling.” While bitcoin miners generally agree that something must be done to address scaling, there is less consensus about how to do it. There have been two major solutions proposed to address the scaling problem. Developers have suggested either (1) decreasing the amount of data needed to verify each block or (2) increasing the number of transactions that each block can store. With less data to verify per block, the Solution 1 would make transactions faster and cheaper for miners. Solution 2 would deal with scaling by allowing for more information to be processed every 10 minutes by increasing block size.
In July 2017, bitcoin miners and mining companies representing roughly 80% to 90% of the network’s computing power voted to incorporate a program that would decrease the amount of data needed to verify each block. That is, they went with Solution 1.
The program that miners voted to add to the bitcoin protocol is called a segregated witness, or SegWit. This term is an amalgamation of Segregated, meaning “to separate,” and Witness, which refers to “signatures on a bitcoin transaction.” Segregated Witness, then, means to separate transaction signatures from a block — and attach them as an extended block. While adding a single program to the bitcoin protocol may not seem like much in the way of a solution, signature data has been estimated to account for up to 65% of the data processed in each block of transactions.
Less than a month later in August 2017, a group of miners and developers initiated a hard fork, leaving the bitcoin network to create a new currency using the same codebase as bitcoin. Although this group agreed with the need for a solution to scaling, they worried that adopting segregated witness technology would not fully address the scaling problem.
Instead, they went with Solution 2. The resulting currency, called “bitcoin cash,” increased the blocksize to 8 MB in order to accelerate the verification process to allow a performance of around 2 million transactions per day. On November 6, 2019, Bitcoin Cash was valued at about $302 to Bitcoin’s roughly $9,330.
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