What is cryptocurrency mining?

We explain how cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are actually made

Two shovels next to Bitcoins being uncovered in mud to depict cryptocurrency mining

Over the past few years, cryptocurrencies have emerged as a highly popular form of payment and investment, particularly for those that do most of their shopping online. The fluctuating price of Bitcoin, which is showing promising signs of recovery after a record high was followed by a record slump, has attracted those looking not just to invest but mine their own coins.

However, the creation of a cryptocurrency isn't as straightforward as simply printing a banknote. Fiat currencies are highly regulated and operate under a central authority, which is responsible for issuing new notes and destroying older ones. Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies on the market are generated through a process known as 'mining'.

Cryptocurrency mining and the blockchain

Let's take Bitcoin as an example. Given that Bitcoins can't be printed like fiat currency, the only way to create more coins is to 'mine' for them.

The complexity behind creating Bitcoins all stems from its blockchain. This public ledger is designed to support the activities of Bitcoin and record every single transaction across its network. For a full guide on how blockchains work, head over to our explainer.

The blockchain makes a record every time a Bitcoin is bought or sold, with these records being assembled into a continuous line of connected 'blocks'. In order for a transaction to be valid and go through, they need to be verified by other users on the network. This verification process is fundamental to the integrity of Bitcoin, as it avoids the issue of 'double spending' – where individuals would try and initiate multiple transactions using the same bitcoin.

Cryptocurrency mining is effectively a process of rewarding network users with Bitcoin for validating these transactions.

Mining new coins

When a slew of transactions is assembled into a block, it is then appended to the blockchain. However, in order to be rewarded with Bitcoin, a ‘mining’ user, or ‘miner’, needs to perform two tasks: validate 1MB worth of transactions as well as be the first to find out a unique 64-digit hexadecimal number - also called a hash.

Similarly to the blockchain, the network user, or 'node', also holds a record of every transaction. As it is notified, the transactions are validated with a series of checks in order to make sure they are legitimate. The checks include scanning the transactions for a unique cryptographic signature, which is created at the beginning of the process, and confirming whether it is valid or not.

In order to be within a chance of securing new Bitcoin, every miner seeks to validate 1MB worth of these transactions. If successful, they then also have to solve a numeric problem which is otherwise known as 'proof of work'. Users who are able to triumphantly generate the correct 64-digit hexadecimal number, or 'hash', which is either less than or equal to the target hash associated with the block, are then remunerated with Bitcoin.

Due to the difficulty of the task, the only feasible way to find the right hash is to calculate as many combinations as possible, and then wait until a match is found.

In order to stand a chance in being the first one to guess a hash, a user needs to have a high hash rate, or hash-per-second, and the more powerful setup, the more hashes a user can sift through - such are the high computing costs of mining. In order to visualise it, imagine a competition where contestants have to guess the correct weight of a cake. Participants have an unlimited number of guesses and the first one to submit the correct weight wins. In this competition, the winner is most likely to be the contestant who is capable of making the most guesses at the fastest rate.

Cryptocurrency mining limits

What this means is that mining for cryptocurrencies is a matter of competing in a highly competitive race against other participants, all hoping to land the winning ticket and grab a payout.

However, that’s not the only challenge you will face if you attempt to mine yourself. The difficulty of calculating each hash also increases artificially in order to maintain a steady flow of newly created blocks. This means that as the block count rises, so too does the processing power required to solve each calculation, and therefore the harder it is to mine as a hobbyist. There’s also the issue of hard limits on total circulation. For example, within the Bitcoin blockchain, there will only ever be 21 million coins created in total, a deliberate design to prevent inflation.

In the early days of each cryptocurrency, it’s perfectly possible for everyday users to participate in mining, but given the issues outlined above, the maturity of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin means that it’s no longer possible to use standard PCs. The complication of the calculations involved, coupled with the sheer number of other people on the network, means that Bitcoin mining can now only be done with large scale processing ‘farms’ – multiple specialised GPUs working in tandem on a 24-hour basis.

In fact, these days it’s almost impossible to create a return on investment from mining as the energy costs required to power GPU farms typically outweighs the value of the currency itself. Either that, or you’ll be forced to funnel the majority of what you earn into the running and maintenance of the equipment.

As the Bitcoin hype is more or less fully nestled in the wider public consciousness, organisations have invested increasingly considerable sums into it, effectively industrialising cryptocurrency mining. Large warehouses packed to the brim with floor-to-ceiling racks of expensive graphics cards, working towards the sole aim of mining new units of Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, and so on, have become the norm.

The Bitcoin network – to add some context – processes 5.5 quintillion hashes per second, which means that unless you have the equipment capable of processing a massive quantity of calculations in a very short space of time, the chances of you being able to compete with the more industrial operations are minuscule.

For this reason, miners often band together and pool resources to maximise their chances of profiting from the cryptocurrency mining game – creating 'mining pools' – sharing their power, as well as any returns their efforts may generate between them.

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