Although still represented as a physical coin, Bitcoin is actually a virtual currency, or crypto-currency, that is not tied to a bank or government and allows users to spend money anonymously.
Coins are created by users who “mine” them by lending computing power to verify the transactions of other users who use .
They receive Bitcoins in exchange. Coins can also be bought and sold on exchanges with U.S. dollars and others (the physical money we use every day in our bank accounts).
Some businesses accept Bitcoin as payment, and a number of financial institutions allow it in their customers’ wallets, but general acceptance is still limited.
Bitcoins are essentially lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they travel from one owner to another.
Transactions can be made anonymously and tokens are easier to move across borders, making the currency popular with libertarians as well as tech enthusiasts, speculators – and sometimes criminals.
Bitcoins must be stored in a digital wallet, either online via an exchange like Coinbase or offline on a hard drive using specialized software.
According to crypto exchange Coinbase, there are about 18.7 million Bitcoins in circulation and only 21 million will ever exist. The reason is unclear, and where all the Bitcoins are is anyone’s guess
How was Bitcoin born?
It’s a mystery. Bitcoin was introduced in 2009 by a person or group of people who go by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin was then adopted by a small handful of enthusiasts. Nakamoto disappeared from the map when Bitcoin began to attract widespread attention.
But the proponents say that this does not matter: money obeys its own internal logic.
Who uses Bitcoin?
Anyone can use, buy and sell Bitcoins via exchange platforms and applications unless you have tens of thousands of dollars right now, it is unlikely that you can afford to buy even one Bitcoin token.
You can, however, buy a share. There are small denominations of Bitcoins called Satoshi after the founder of the crypto.
One Satoshi is worth 0.00000001 Bitcoin.
Digital payments company Square and its CEO Jack Dorsey – who is also the CEO of Twitter – have been big supporters of Bitcoin.
Overstock.com also accepts Bitcoin, and in February BNY Mellon, the oldest bank in the U.S., said it would include digital currencies in the services it provides to customers. Mastercard also said it would begin supporting “some crypto-currencies” on its network.
Bitcoin has become popular enough that more than 300,000 transactions typically occur in an average day, according to Bitcoin wallet site Blockchain.info.
However, its popularity is low compared to cash and credit cards.
Why isn’t it used more widely?
Because it is decentralized and unregulated, there has been some skepticism surrounding Bitcoin. Tracking Bitcoin’s price is obviously easier than trying to determine its value, which is why so many institutions, experts and traders have doubts about cryptos more generally. Digital currencies were seen as substitutes for paper money, but that hasn’t happened until now.
While some banks and financial services companies are getting into it, others are staying away. The crypto-currency market has also been susceptible to extreme volatility, with the likes of Elon Musk using Twitter to influence the value of cryptos. Musk announced in February that his electric car company Tesla had invested $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion) in Bitcoin.
In March, Tesla began accepting Bitcoin as a form of payment. These actions helped Bitcoin’s price skyrocket, and Musk also promoted the digital currency Dogecoin, which also increased in value.
However, Musk reversed course in short order, stating last week that because of the potential environmental damage that could result from Bitcoin mining. The announcement sent Bitcoin plummeting below $50,000 (€42,000) and set the tone for the big pullback recently in most crypto-currencies. A number of Bitcoin fans pushed back against Musk’s reasoning. Fellow billionaire Mark Cuban said that gold mining is far more damaging to the environment than Bitcoin mining.
Does Bitcoin harm the environment?
A 2019 study by the Technical University of Munich and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the Bitcoin network generates a similar amount of CO2 as a major Western city or an entire developing country like Sri Lanka.
But a Cambridge University study last year estimated that, on average, 39% of “proof-of-work” crypto mining was powered by, primarily, hydroelectric power.
The mining process requires large amounts of energy to power the necessary supercomputers, making the creation of new tokens a significant investment of time and money.
Thus, the concentration of mining varies around the world depending on access to cheap electricity.
In China, where the majority of Bitcoin mining now takes place, miners often rely on electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. As such, questions have been raised as to whether or not this is a good thing, especially as countries around the world strive to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.