Blockchain tech is actually rather easy to understand at its core. Essentially, it’s a shared database populated with entries that must be confirmed and encrypted. Think of it as a kind of highly encrypted and verified shared Google Document, in which each entry in the sheet depends on a logical relationship to all its predecessors. Blockchain tech offers a way to securely and efficiently create a tamper-proof log of sensitive activity (anything from international money transfers to shareholder records).
Blockchain’s conceptual framework and underlying code is useful for a variety of financial processes because of the potential it has to give companies a secure, digital alternative to banking processes that are typically bureaucratic, time-consuming, paper-heavy, and expensive.
Cryptocurrencies are essentially just digital money, digital tools of exchange that use cryptography and the aforementioned blockchain technology to facilitate secure and anonymous transactions. There had been several iterations of cryptocurrency over the years, but Bitcoin truly thrust cryptocurrencies forward in the late 2000s. There are thousands of cryptocurrencies floating out on the market now, but Bitcoin is far and away the most popular.
Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies don’t just fall out of the sky. Like any other form of money, it takes work to produce them. And that work comes in the form of mining.
But let’s take a step back. Satoshi Nakamoto, the founder of Bitcoin, ensured that there would ever only be 21 million Bitcoins in existence. He (or they) reached that figure by calculating that people would discover, or “mine,” a certain number of blocks of transactions each day.
Every four years, the number of Bitcoins released in relation to the previous cycle gets reduced by 50%, along with the reward to miners for discovering new blocks. At the moment, that reward is 12.5 Bitcoins. Therefore, the total number of Bitcoins in circulation will approach 21 million but never actually reach that figure. This means Bitcoin will never experience inflation. The downside here is that a hack or cyberattack could be a disaster because it could erase Bitcoin wallets with little hope of getting the value back.
As for mining Bitcoins, the process requires electrical energy. Miners solve complex mathematical problems, and the reward is more Bitcoins generated and awarded to them. Miners also verify transactions and prevent fraud, so more miners equals faster, more reliable, and more secure transactions.
Thanks to Satoshi Nakamoto’s designs, Bitcoin mining becomes more difficult as more miners join the fray. In 2009, a miner could mine 200 Bitcoin in a matter of days. In 2014, it would take approximately 98 years to mine just one, according to 99Bitcoins.
Super powerful computers called Application Specific Integrated Circuit, or ASIC, were developed specifically to mine Bitcoins. But because so many miners have joined in the last few years, it remains difficult to mine loads. The solution is mining pools, groups of miners who band together and are paid relative to their share of the work.