Can You Make Money Bitcoin Mining?
What is Bitcoin Mining?
Lately I've been investigating bitcoin mining as a source of passive income. I've decided that this is very different from trying to make money by publishing online content. To have a chance of earning anything at all, it requires a fairly big initial investment.
Most people are now familiar with bitcoins, even if they've never used them, as the new virtual currency. It is the first currency to be controlled by a cryptographic protocol rather than a central bank. Basically you pay for something by sending BTC from a virtual wallet in your computer to the merchant's computer.
So how can you make money from this?. Well, theoretically, your computer can become a node in the network that processes and verifies the transactions. With every blockchain that is processed a new block of 25 coins, worth around $2500 at today's prices, is created. This is known as bitcoin mining.
Update Jan. 2014. The mining difficulty has increased 50x since I wrote this article. Today it stands at 1.4 billion. This means that if my pool found a block once a day in July, it now takes over a month. This makes mining with anything but the most powerful ASICs completely pointless.
The price of BTC has skyrocketed (close to $1000 today), however it doesn't quite make up for the rise in difficulty. According to the profit calculator mining at 5 GH/s will get you $1.50 a day. But check for yourself because it can change dramatically.
If you want to get into crypto currencies, you might want to consider Litecoin rather than Bitcoins. Find out all about it here.
What You Need to Start Bitcoin Mining
Technically all you need to become a node in the network, and to start printing your own virtual mone,y is a computer with internet access. You can download a free wallet to your computer, one of several free miner programs, and join in.
Sounds great doesn't it? The problem is that the computer power required is phenomenal. If you work by yourself, with only a personal computer, it might be years before you see your first block. For this reason most miners join a pool, where the work and rewards are shared.
In a pool, when a block is solved and new coins created, you will only get a tiny fraction of a coin. But usually several blocks are solved in a day. The person running the pool takes a small percentage as a fee (say 3%), but you get (almost) instant gratification.
One important aspect of mining is that the difficulty of solving the blocks increases with time.
So can you make money bitcoin mining with a personal computer? It does depend on how good your PC is. Strangely enough the processing needed for BTC mining is much better done by a graphics card (GPU), rather than a CPU. So unless you have a gaming computer with a good dedicated graphics card, well you can do it, but you will mine so little that it will hardly make a difference.
There are two GPU manufacturers that provide the chips for all graphic cards, Ati Radeon and Nvidia. It turns out that Radeon cards are much better at bit mining than Nvidia cards. Something to do with the cards' architecture that doesn't really make a difference in rendering graphics in games, but makes a huge difference in mining.
My Experience Mining with an Nvidia GPU
I've decided to try bitcoin mining with my gaming PC, which unfortunately has an Nvidia card (GTX 660Ti) if you are interested. The efficiency of your setup is expressed in megahash per second (Mh/s). My card appears to work at around 100 Mh/s.
I've had some teething problems with the client (I keep being thrown out of the pool) so I have not mined for a full 24 hours, but I've managed to generate 0.002BTC. That is worth about 20 cents. I suspect that a full 24 hours of mining would yield closer to 30 cents.
Also this is very variable, when mining as a pool, which has a collective power of 3000 Gh/s, we sometimes hit the payload in 10 hours, if we are unlucky, and sometimes in less than an hour. Over time it this evens out.
But remember the increased electricity used by heavily using your graphics card full time. Also the wear and tear on a card probably means it will not last as long as it normally would.
It is possible that mining with my setup will lose me money rather than earn it.
You might be able to do 3-5x better with a Radeon card. Even better if your PC has two cards running in crossfire mode. But honestly it hardly seems worth the trouble.
Edit: Jan 2014, it is definitely not worth it now. The difficulty is 50x what it was in the summer!
The New Mining Hardware, Dedicated ASICs
On the other hand, there is the possiblity of buying an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit), a piece of electronics, dedicated to bitcoin mining, that you connect to your computer. The smallest of the ones now being produced by Butterfly Labs works at 5Gh/s (That's 500 times better than my card). They are also developing 50 Gh/s ASICs.
According to a new post from the manufacturer, the miners will draw 5W per Gh/s that they hash. For comparison a 42" LCD TV is rated at about 200W. So the 5Gh/s Jalapeno miner will use 0.6 Kilo watt hours per day, while the 50GH/s big boy will use 3 kWh.
If you pay 15 cents for a Kwh, operating the biggest ASIC miner will add about $10 to your monthly electricity bill.
The BTC mining profitability calculatorestimates that you will earn $17 a day with the 5Gh/s Jalapeno ASIC, and $170 with the 50Gh/s ASIC, after factoring in electricity usage. [Edit Nov. 2013: Now the estimate is $3 for a Jalapeño and $30 for the 50Gh/s ASIC.]
They are not cheap, the 50GH/s one comes at $2,500. However, according to the calculator, it would "pay for itself" in 15 days. And then you are basically printing money. The operation requires no more effort than signing in to an exchange once in a while to sell the coins that you've mined.
Edit Jan 2014: It is hardly worth mining with my 5Gh/s Jalapeño now, I reckon I'm making only a bit over a dollar a day (unless the price of BTC goes up even more that is). It is probably as profitable to mine with the 50Gh/s ButterflyLabs single now, as it was with the Jalapeño in the summer (around $15 a day).
See what the 5 Ghash/s Jalapeno looks like
Other ASIC Manufacturers
Incidentally Butterfly Labs are not the only ASIC manufacturers. In fact the other company "Avalon" managed to produce and sell ASICs earlier this year.
However they only sell batches of the miners, and only to people on the waiting list, so if you want to buy from them now, you will not get your device immediately.
There is also the option of getting the little Block Erupter USB ASICS, which do 336 Mh/s. I have 6 of these mining right now, they use little electricity and don't slow down your computer, so are superior to a graphics card.
The Problems with ASICs
Looking at it like this, buying the equipment and becoming a virtual money miner seems like a no-brainer. However, there is a catch, of course there is, otherwise I wouldn't be telling you about this. At the moment you can't just go online and buy these lovely miraculous money making machines.
When Butterfly Labs first got into producing them, they raised the money from pre-orders. People paid up to be the first to get the miners, and the money was used to develop and make them. But of course there were hitches and delays along the way.
The bottom line is that the smallest Jalapenos have just started to be shipped to the people who placed orders months ago. Apparently by now (July 2013), they have caught up with orders paid for at the beginning of November last year.
Technically shipment of the bigger miners has started, but they've been shipping the Singles (50 GH/s) from the first day of pre-orders, 23rd June 2012, the whole months, and with the Little Singles (25Gh/s) they have only reached 24th June pre-orders. I have seen people predicting that orders placed now, will not be fulfilled till next year.
Although one would hope that now that they've started shipping the smaller ones, the path forward will be smoother and they will be able to produce them at a decent rate.
The ASICs Will Become Less Profitable With Time
This is not just a problem of delaying the fabulous earnings. Remember that the difficulty of mining increases with time. So the supermachine that can get you 1.6 BTC per day now, will produce significantly less in a year's time.
That might seem like an acceptable risk, if you could get your hands on them right now, since they should pay for themselves within a couple of weeks. Unless you are very unlucky and the crypto-currency crashes right after you buy them, you should be ok.
But if you have to part with a large sum of money now, and not start earning for months to come, the risk is obviously much more significant.
Also bitcoin mining cannot go on forever. A limit is set into the system, with the block size being halved every 4 years, so the increase in total currency is limited. In a few year's time there will be far fewer new coins generated than there are now.
The 1 Million Dollar Pizza
In 2010 bitcoins were used by a small number of people, and their value was often negotiated between buyer and seller individually.
One famous case involves the sale of a pizza for 10,000 BTC. At today's exchange rate that is the equivalent to over $1,000,000.
I hope the pizza was worth it!
Will Bitcoins Become a Mainstream Currency, or Will They Disappear?
There is always the inherent risk of dealing with bitcoins, whose price is very volatile. Earlier this year it rose to the insane heights of $260, then in April fell to $50. It seems to have stabilised in the last few weeks at around the $100 mark. Since their supply is strictly limited by the algorithm, it is hoped that if they become used by more people their price will rise.
But it is equally possible that it will fall, or they will become completely worthless in a few months time.
Should bitcoins crash, there will be no IMF rescue, and no meetings of G8 leaders trying to save the currency.
Having said that, there are a lot of investors who are hoarding BTCs counting on their price rising in the future. These people are usually taking much bigger risks than people spending $300-$2500 on an asic. On the other hand, if you want to invest some money in the hope that bitcoins will be worth more in the future, you could just buy coins on an exchange, rather than mining them.
Is it Worth Buying BFL ASICs on eBay?
Now there is a way of getting the Jalapeno, and sometimes even the bigger ASIC faster. Some people who are on the waiting list already, are selling them on eBay.
Or to be more precise, they are selling their place in the queue. You pay the money now (and obviously you pay more than if you bought it straight from Butterfly Labs, but the seller doesn't actually have the miner in his possession yet. They will ship the item as soon as it is shipped to them by the manufacturer.
It does mean, however, that you will get your (virtual) money printing equipment faster than if you place the order with a manufacturer. At least with the Jalapenos now shipping you should not have to wait too long for your order. Probably.
One of the problems of people getting these very efficient miners is that the difficulty level is likely to rise quickly once they join the network, since the protocol is set up to produce a new block of 25 coins about every 10 minutes. This will make BTC mining much less efficient.
On the other hand there is the possibility that as mining using simpler devices becomes far less profitable, people without ASICs are going to stop doing it. Presumably most of the people doing it don't use these expensive and hard to get devices.
There are other risks of buying on eBay. Some offers are apparently fraudulent.
One notable eBay auction involved somebody buying an Avalon ASIC worth $1500 for over $20,000!