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What is Proof-of-work? PoW Blockchains Explained

Proof-of-work (PoW) is a consensus mechanism used by cryptocurrencies to validate transactions. It’s a way to make sure that new transactions added to the blockchain are legit. In decentralized systems, where there’s no central authority, PoW plays an important role in keeping things honest. In this blog, we will break down PoW – what it is, how it works, and why it’s so important to decentralized networks. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how PoW keeps your favorite crypto assets secure.

What is a Consensus Mechanism in Crypto?

A consensus mechanism is a program within a blockchain whose purpose is to ensure agreement on the current state of the ledger. It is implemented within decentralized networks that have many networks and users.

When it comes to blockchains and distributed ledgers, consensus mechanisms play an important role. They replace slower human verification and auditing processes and accelerate the transaction process. Moreover, they eliminate the need for a central authority since transaction verification is handled by server nodes, not a single entity.

The two most common types of consensus mechanisms you will find in the crypto world are Proof-of-work (PoW) and Proof-of-stake (PoS). They are also referred to as Mining and Staking, respectively.

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What is Proof-of-work?

When it comes to cryptocurrencies, there’s no central authority checking the accuracy of new transactions on the blockchain. Instead, a decentralized network of participants takes on this role. Their job is to validate incoming transactions and add them as new blocks on the chain to keep the process going.

Proof of Work (PoW) doesn’t just verify transactions, but it also decides which participants, known as miners, get the opportunity to verify new data. Here, it becomes more like a race where miners compete to be the first to solve complex mathematical puzzles. This competitive “work” ensures the system’s integrity and prevents any sort of cheating.

The winning miner earns the privilege of adding the latest batch of data or transactions to the blockchain. In return, they are rewarded in that specific cryptocurrency for doing the work.  However, they only receive their reward after other network participants confirm the accuracy and validity of the added data. It’s a strong way to maintain trust and security within a decentralized network. Bitcoin is the leading example of PoW blockchain.

What is Proof-of-work

Bitcoin is the biggest cryptocurrency that employs the PoW consensus mechanism and relies on mining.

Proof-of-work Explained: How Does it Work?

When a user starts a transaction on the blockchain, it spreads to all network nodes. Miners grab these transactions and bundle them into blocks, and before adding a block to the chain, they need to verify the transactions.

Here’s where cryptographic hash functions like SHA-256 come in. Miners use these functions to create a unique digital fingerprint, or “hash,” of the block’s data, including transactions and a link to the previous block. SHA-256 is also the hash function that Bitcoin uses.

To keep things steady, the network adjusts the mining difficulty regularly. This difficulty is set by the target value for the hash. Miners aim to find a hash value meeting this target by tweaking a value called the “nonce.”

Miners keep changing the nonce until they discover a hash that meets the difficulty target. Since the hash function is predictable, miners need to try multiple hash attempts until they hit the right one.

The miner who finds a valid hash that meets the required difficulty shares it with the network. Other participants can easily check its validity by applying the same hash function and comparing it to the target.

Once a valid hash is found, the miner adds the block to the blockchain, including the previous block’s hash, and spreads it across the network. As a reward, the successful miner gets a set amount of cryptocurrency tokens, often along with transaction fees from the block’s transactions.

Challenges Within Proof-of-work Mechanism

Energy Consumption Concerns:

The primary challenge with proof-of-work (PoW) is its perceived energy inefficiency. Numerous studies estimate that Bitcoin’s energy usage surpasses that of several mid-sized countries like Norway and Argentina. Some suggest that this could contribute significantly to climate change as adoption continues.

Despite these concerns, evidence contradicts the notion that Bitcoin’s impact is overwhelmingly negative. In fact, the Bitcoin network consumes less energy than traditional monetary systems and major industries like gold mining and finance.

An essential consideration is that, with energy being a key variable in Bitcoin mining, miners are motivated to explore cost-effective methods, including renewable sources. Over time, a substantial 59% of Bitcoin mining is estimated to use environmentally friendly energy sources, surpassing other sectors and countries.

Efficient Scaling Challenges:

Another criticism revolves around the scalability of PoW systems like Bitcoin, as newer consensus models claim to scale more efficiently. However, Bitcoin advocates argue that its unique global monetary role justifies the delayed confirmation time as it contributes greatly to network security. Nowadays, PoW systems are adapting by optimizing scalability on secondary layers like the Lightning Network.

Centralization Concerns:

Critics also express concerns about the increasing centralization of PoW consensus algorithms over time. The rising entry costs and computing difficulty have concentrated consensus decisions around a limited number of major mining pools. These pools exercise significant control due to their collective hashing power. This could pose a potential risk if not acting in good faith.

Centralization concerns

A crypto mining rig in a mining facility

Proof-of-work vs. Proof-of-stake

As mentioned above, there are two consensus mechanisms that are widely used in the crypto industry: Proof-of-work (PoW) and Proof-of-stake (PoS). Bitcoin relies on PoW, emphasizing competition and energy-intensive mining, and is the best example of a PoW blockchain. On the other hand, Ethereum has adopted PoS and relies on validators committing collateral in the form of Ether for an eco-friendlier approach. Let’s break down the key differences between them in simple terms:

Key Differences:

  • In PoW, the verification process is called mining, where a network of miners competes to validate transactions. PoS, on the other hand, selects validators based on rules tied to their “stake” in the blockchain. This refers to the token amount they commit to lock up, increasing their chances of becoming validators.
  • Miners in Bitcoin, for instance, receive Bitcoin as a reward and transaction fees for their efforts. Ethereum uses PoS, and validators are rewarded with transaction fees in the form of Ether.
  • PoS generally requires less computational power and energy compared to the competitive nature of PoW, which involves extensive energy consumption.
  • PoW miners earn both cryptocurrency rewards and transaction fees, while PoS validators receive rewards primarily in the form of transaction fees.
  • Both systems aim for decentralization and make sure that transactions are visible and verified by computers worldwide.

Proof-of-work Cryptocurrencies

More than 60% of the total market cap of cryptocurrencies is reliant on Proof-of-work cryptocurrencies. Some top cryptocurrencies that employ the PoW consensus mechanism include:

  • Bitcoin (BTC)
  • Litecoin (LTC)
  • Dogeoin (DOGE)
  • Bitcoin Cash
  • Monero

Conclusion:

Proof-of-work is still the leading consensus mechanism in the blockchain world. Though some raise concerns about its energy usage, PoW remains the most reliable way to validate transactions and uphold the security of blockchain networks. The competitive nature of the mining process ensures the authenticity of recorded transactions and provides a defense against potential threats. Despite a few drawbacks, the PoW consensus mechanism is still revolutionizing the financial landscape for the better.

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