• Bitcoin mining involves confirming transactions and adding them to the blockchain.
  • As a reward for this work, miners receive newly issued bitcoins.
  • The cost of the hardware and energy involved can make profiting from Bitcoin mining difficult.

Bitcoin mining is a crucial part of the cryptocurrency’s underlying technology through which transactions are verified and added to the digital ledger known as blockchain. The owners and operators of the computer systems that make up the decentralized Bitcoin network, called miners, receive newly created bitcoins as a reward for this work.

In this process, miners compete to solve highly complex mathematical equations. The first to figure it out receives the reward. 

How does Bitcoin mining work? 

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, meaning that it is a currency that leverages cryptography. It can be used to make payments without financial institutions or the government involved. The digital currency, which has managed to attract significant interest from investors, trades on numerous exchanges. 

The cryptocurrency relies on a process called mining to confirm transactions and add them to the blockchain. In addition to verifying transactions, mining secures the network. It also prevents double spending, which is where someone uses the same funds twice. 

The Bitcoin network was designed to allow interested parties to make transactions without going through intermediaries like banks. As a result, there must be some mechanism in place to determine which transactions occur. 

Bitcoin solves this by leveraging a consensus mechanism, an algorithm that determines which transactions take place on the network. More specifically, Bitcoin uses a mechanism called proof-of-work.

Here are the basic steps involved in the mining process:

  1. Computers on the network gather transactions that took place in the last 10 minutes into a block and then compete to solve a complex math problem. The answer, known as hash, contains 64 characters.
  2. The miner or mining pool that solves the equation before everyone else shares the result with the other systems in the broader network. If the others verify that the solution is valid, the block is added to the blockchain. 
  3. The winning miner then receives something called a mining reward, which is currently 6.25 bitcoins. This incentive, which was originally 50 bitcoins, is reduced by 50% every four years during events that are referred to as halvings. Bitcoin has undergone these halving events in 2012, 2016, and 2020. 

The race to solve these increasingly difficult cryptographic puzzles requires significant amounts of energy. But this cost is intentional, since the bitcoins created can be very lucrative.

Is Bitcoin mining profitable? 

Bitcoin mining can be profitable, but there are several variables to consider, and miners can certainly face challenges. 

"The profitability of Bitcoin mining depends on a multitude of factors, such as the cost of electricity, the mining equipment you're using, and the number of other people who are also mining Bitcoin," says Nick Spanos, co-founder of Zap Protocol, which provides infrastructure for decentralized applications.

Miners are paid in bitcoin every time they add a block to the blockchain. The price of bitcoin is highly volatile, so the value of this mining incentive can vary significantly. 

For instance, in late August 2022, Bitcoin's price was around $20,000, according to data from Markets Insider, which would make the mining incentive approximately $125,000. At the start of the year, it was near $48,000, which would make the mining reward about $300,000

Further, the amount of bitcoin a miner receives from completing a block is cut in half every four years. In addition, it is becoming harder to mine the digital currency, as the mining difficulty, a measure of how tough it is to mine a block, has increased significantly over time. 

Since proof-of-work involves hardware that requires a lot of electricity, energy costs are a major factor in profitability. This year, many miners have come to the US, as the nation has a wealth of renewable energy sources, and certain states benefit from some of the lowest energy prices around. 

Another major consideration is hardware. An ASIC — a specialized computer used to mine bitcoin— can cost more than $10,000. Further, once energy expenses are included, mining a single bitcoin can cost thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the hardware used to do it.

"For most people living in the US and Western Europe, where per-unit electricity costs are high, it is difficult to turn a profit mining Bitcoin, but not impossible," says Spanos."People living in Asia have access to much cheaper electricity, but they are less likely to be able to afford the upfront cost of getting into Bitcoin mining."

Another key consideration is that generating a block could potentially take months or even years, depending on the level of computing power that is committed to it. In order to hedge risks like this, individual computers can participate in mining pools, which are groups of miners that work together to increase the odds that they will be able to successfully solve the needed mathematical problems and therefore mine blocks.

What are the risks of Bitcoin mining? 

There are several risks involved in mining bitcoin. The total expenses, including the cost of hardware and energy, can be significant. And there is no guarantee that an individual running a system on the network will see a return on their investment. 

Further, governments can quickly change the equation, meaning that they can affect profitability very easily. A perfect example is mining bans. China, for example, banned bitcoin mining in 2021, which caused the nation's share of global mining to drop to almost zero. 

Other countries, such as Nepal and Algeria, have also banned bitcoin mining by prohibiting all activity related to cryptocurrencies. Nepal outlawed mining in 2019 when it passed the Foreign Exchange Act. Algeria did the same thing the year before. 

Bitcoin mining has also created some controversy due to concerns about how it affects the environment. Some industry observers have estimated that this activity has a carbon footprint similar to that of a small country. 

This year, Swedish government officials wrote an open letter requesting that the European Union ban Bitcoin mining, emphasizing that this activity is reducing the chances that Sweden will be able to meet the goals it agreed to by the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Is Bitcoin mining legal?

Bitcoin mining is legal in most countries, but several jurisdictions have banned this practice. China, one of the world's largest economies, has outlawed bitcoin mining. The nation's government has also prohibited all cryptocurrency transactions. 

When explaining this aggressive action, analysts have said that China's authorities believe cryptocurrencies could interfere with the nation's plans to roll out a central bank digital currency, something it has been testing. 

Algerian legislators reportedly started considering a total ban on digital currencies in 2017, stating that criminals might use cryptocurrencies for illegal activities such as money laundering, drug trafficking and tax evasion. 

The bottom line

Bitcoin mining, which involves confirming transactions, can potentially be profitable. However, the extent to which this activity is profitable depends on several variables, including hardware costs, the expenses associated with energy and the price of Bitcoin. 

It's not really feasible for many individuals to get involved with bitcoin mining, as doing so could involve investing thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars into a venture where there is no guaranteed return. Instead, investors who are interested in getting involved in Bitcoin might want to purchase bitcoins from exchange, or shares of crypto-mining stocks, which grant exposure to publicly traded mining companies.