Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China A decade ago, after a speculative coal boom fizzled, the once-thriving desert city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, became China’s largest ghost town, littered with unfinished or empty buildings and desperate for another way to make money. Digital gold bitcoin pdf noise in the dimly lit buildings is loud and unceasing. Workers tending to the machines must wear mufflers to do their work. Quartz is a digitally native news outlet for the new global economy.
70 billion, and whose ability to act as a kind of digital gold has captured the imaginations of governments, big banks, and small entrepreneurs. Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance. That has made China a dominant force in a new industry that may one day define how global transactions are ordered. The other hosts 4,000 machines dedicated to litecoin, an alternative digital currency that’s been rising in price in recent months. Next to the warehouse buildings sits a three-story office with a canteen and dormitory for the mine’s workers. Racks of litecoin mining machines in a warehouse building in Ordos. This month, Quartz took a tour of the mine and spoke with its employees.
Working in such a place can be both tedious and surreal. But the work is less physically demanding—and the clean, temperature-controlled environment is less hazardous to workers’ health—than at many jobs in the area, where the economy is driven by coal mining and industries like aluminum smelting and chemical engineering. In 2012, before coal prices began to plummet, Ordos accounted for a fifth of the country’s coal output. While many local coal mines closed after prices dropped, the area remains notable for cheap, abundant, coal-powered energy, which helps explain the presence of a sprawling, electricity-hungry bitcoin operation in what feels like the middle of nowhere.
In 2015, Bitmain took over the mine from its previous owner, who launched the operation in 2014. Bitmain claims that it is the world’s oldest large-scale bitcoin mine. In addition to running mines, Bitmain makes the machines—basically single processors in small, connected boxes—that mine for bitcoin. The company also operates Antpool, the world’s largest mining pool. The 50 Ordos residents who work at the mine are mostly in their twenties and they tend to the machines that generate cryptocurrency for clients. Few have expertise in bitcoin, but many have invested in cryptocurrencies nevertheless. Workers at the Bitmain mine prepare to put mining machines on shelves.
Han Lei, 28, who’s been looking after the machines since the mine opened. Hou Jie, an introverted 24-year-old who speaks in a low and seemingly uncertain voice, is among the six fresh college graduates Bitmain recently hired. Majoring in mechanical design and manufacturing, he heard about bitcoin for the first time during his interview with Bitmain at a local recruiting event for college graduates. It’s a virtual currency, similar to stocks. He has saved little money so far, but Hou is following the bitcoin price closely to find the perfect time to weigh in. The price has reached its peak. It might go down if I buy now.
In the bitcoin economy, time really is money. The work is akin to trying out billions of combinations of numbers on a safe. The miner who gets the right combination the fastest unlocks the safe. The more machines you have, the greater your chances of earning coins. With that in mind, miners try to ensure that every single one of their machines is operating properly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Han and Hou work, along with about 20 others.
A maintenence worker at Bitmain monitors bitcoin mining machines. Each building is surrounded by two fine-wire mesh fences. They are designed to keep out the dust of Inner Mongolia, which can, and often does, cause the machines to break down. Layers of dust can infiltrate the machines, causing them to overheat. The machines are already running nonstop at maximum output, so even a small increase in temperature can affect their performance. In the spring, the fences also guard against a flurry of fuzzy, bullet-sized catkins, shed by the willow trees common across China.
Yu Linjia, who oversees all mining operations at Bitmain. The dimly lit interiors are bathed in an alien glow from the machines’ green LEDs. The noise—a constant drone from the small fans attached to each machine, as well as the huge fans built into the walls of the building—is loud and unceasing. Employees must wear ear mufflers to do their work. If they’re lucky, maintenance workers can fix a machine by simply restarting it or reconnecting its cables. If not, they must take it off the shelf and hand it over to the repair department, which consists of six employees who work in the office building.
Repair workers at the Bitmain mine in Ordos. Machines at the mine break all the time, given there are 25,000 devices. It’s a game of whack-a-mole: After one is fixed, another broken machine crops up. Hou, who tends to the machines daily from 8:30am to 6:30pm. I just try my best to check as many as possible.