There’s a gold rush going on these days, or a Bitcoin rush, at least. Driven by the recent swings in the value of a Bitcoin, more and more people are learning about and becoming interested in the currency. While they could just buy Bitcoins at the current market rate, others are looking to try their luck at mining Bitcoins. And like prospectors who traveled west during the Gold Rush of the 19th century, many Bitcoin miners will find that they spend more on chasing the Bitcoin dream than they’ll ever hope to win back.
As explained here, Bitcoins are “mined” by unlocking blocks of data that “produce a particular pattern when the Bitcoin ‘hash’ algorithm is applied to the data.” It seems simple enough, but the cost of Bitcoin mining is greater than one might expect. The more Bitcoins are mined, the more difficult it becomes to find the next block. Unless the miner is using the latest specially-designed mining rigs, the computers used often sport high-end graphics cards (since the GPUs are more efficient than CPUs for mining application). And running those computers requires a lot of power.
Blockchain.info, which tracks Bitcoin-related data, estimates that miners are using 1,005.59 megawatt hours of electrical consumption each day in their pursuit of new blocks of Bitcoins. That ends up costing about $150,000 in power costs each day to mine the currency. [Hat tip to Bloomberg for reporting on the data.]
That may sound like a lot, but miners on average are making money. According to Blockchain, miners are generating $470,000 in Bitcoin-related revenue per day. In fact, due to the recent interest in the virtual currency and its popularity, operating margins for Bitcoin miners are close to record highs.
While it might be easy to look at those numbers and think it’s NBD to just like, extract value out of thin air, Bitcoin mining isn’t as lucrative as it seems. Regular users hoping to use their regular computers to mine shouldn’t expect to just start making money by setting aside a few compute cycles to dig up Bitcoins. That’s generally reserved for special mining computers that do nothing BUT mine for Bitcoins using custom encryption processors.
As Biggs points out in his article, “While you could simply set a machine aside and have it run the algorithms endlessly, the energy cost and equipment deprecation will eventually cost more than the actual Bitcoins are worth.” That’s been confirmed by my colleague Matt Burns, who wrote in our internal message board that “after mining for a few days, the energy required to run my computer at full tilt was far greater than the Bitcoins I mined.”
Even if you do choose to pool your resources to mine, it’s a fairly complicated process, even for tech-savvy users. Check out the aforementioned article by Biggs for how he connected his home PCs into a Bitcoin-mining pool.
The alternative is to just buy specialty hardware designed to do nothing but mine for Bitcoins. Like any other investment, the return isn’t assured, and likely will be based on how Bitcoin market takes shape as time goes on. But right now, as with most gold rushes throughout history, it’s those who are supplying the miners that are finding the real riches.