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A big thing has just happened to Bitcoin. It's called the halving

Bitcoin has just experienced a quadrennial event called the halving. It comes at a time when the digital currency was already surging.
Dale De La Rey
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AFP via Getty Images
Bitcoin has just experienced a quadrennial event called the halving. It comes at a time when the digital currency was already surging.

Updated April 20, 2024 at 7:58 AM ET

Bitcoin has just experienced the halving 2024 — and some experts believe it will turbocharge a rally in the digital currency.

The halving takes place roughly every four years, and it previously has been a pretty obscure event.

In broad terms, the halving effectively reduces the supply of new bitcoins. And that presumably should lead to higher prices. It's the scarcity principle. The fewer bitcoins that get mined, the more valuable bitcoin becomes.

But a funny thing has happened since the last halving in 2020. The adoption of bitcoin has risen sharply. It's not only increased awareness by regular people across the world. Big Wall Street firms are now buying bitcoin and offering investment products tied to the digital currency.

As a result, bitcoin has been surging. Just last month it hit a record high of above $70,000, although it has retreated some since then.

The momentum has crypto investors predicting an incredible rally for bitcoin over the next year.

But will it happen? And what does all of this mean? Here's what to know.

What is the halving?

First the name. Few in the crypto world seems to like the name halving.

But it effectively describes what's going to happen.

And it all involves bitcoin mining.

Just like geological miners — from professionals to amateurs — who mine the earth to discover new diamonds or gold, bitcoin miners must discover something hidden. They solve very complicated math formulas to unveil new bitcoins. (Or in crypto lingo, "a block" is created and then added to a virtual public bitcoin ledger called the blockchain)

Whoever solves the formula first gets a bunch of bitcoins as a prize. It's why miners try to compete in this race by building the most powerful computer networks they can.

A 'Buy Bitcoin Here' sign is posted at a 7-Eleven store in Los Angeles on Nov. 10, 2021. How much the halving contributes to gains in bitcoin has been a subject of continued debate.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A 'Buy Bitcoin Here' sign is posted at a 7-Eleven store in Los Angeles on Nov. 10, 2021. How much the halving contributes to gains in bitcoin has been a subject of continued debate.

But the reward of bitcoin that miners get by cracking the solution periodically gets cut in half. This formula was deliberately built into the computational code that makes up bitcoin.

Also deliberately built into the system is the number of bitcoins that can ever exist — the supply is capped at 21 million. So far over 19 million tokens have been created.

And every time 210,000 formulas (or blocks) get solved, a halving occurs.

The halving effectively increases the time it will take to reach that 21 million limit — and it also tends to increase bitcoin's value.

When bitcoin was first created, miners got a stash of 50 tokens when they solved the formula.

That was cut to 25 in the first halving in 2012. Then to 12.5 in 2016. And since 2020, it stood at 6.25 tokens -- until Friday when the latest halving occurred.

That means that miners will now receive 3.125 tokens after solving these complicated math formulas.

Will the halving spark a rally in bitcoin?

So far it has.

In each of the three previous halvings, bitcoin went on to rally by three-digit percentage points in the year that followed, although not always immediately.

But whether the halving itself was the main cause has been a subject of debate.

This debate will continue now that the latest halving has happened.

Some experts argue that there are other factors that will push up the price of bitcoin this time around, halving or no halving. The fact there is an increasing adoption of bitcoin, for example. And that traders are speculating more on bitcoin.

Also, big investment firms such as BlackRock this year launched spot bitcoin exchange-traded funds (ETFs) — or funds that track the price of bitcoin. That has also led to increased demand for the digital currency.

BlackRock unveiled its Bitcoin Spot ETF on the Nasdaq Exchange on Jan. 11, 2024 in New York City. The launch of these types of ETFs are driving up demand for bitcoin.
Stephanie Keith / Getty Images
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Getty Images
BlackRock unveiled its Bitcoin Spot ETF on the Nasdaq Exchange on Jan. 11, 2024 in New York City. The launch of these types of ETFs are driving up demand for bitcoin.

So this halving — the thinking goes — is coming at a particularly good time for bitcoin.

Not only that: Bitcoin connoisseurs are hoping that the excitement generated around the 2024 halving will also lead to increased awareness and acceptance of the digital currency.

Will the halving cut bitcoin mining's energy consumption?

This is another point of debate.

Bitcoin mining requires an incredible amount of energy, though there's still some uncertainty about exactly how much.

Some believe halvings will force miners to use even more computational power to try to solve the formulas because they now get a fewer stash of bitcoin. According to this logic, miners will react by trying to solve more formulas to get more tokens.

But this is in dispute. Others argue that halvings also force miners to get more efficient because the energy needed to power all those computers is expensive. For example, miners may use more renewable energy or they'll turn to computers that can do more with less power.

A technician inspects the backside of bitcoin mining at Bitfarms in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada on March 19, 2018. There's also considerable debate about how the halving will impact the amount of energy involved in bitcoin mining.
Lars Hagberg / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A technician inspects the backside of bitcoin mining at Bitfarms in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada on March 19, 2018. There's also considerable debate about how the halving will impact the amount of energy involved in bitcoin mining.

Some believe halvings can even lead to less energy being consumed as some of the miners that can't compete any longer will just give up. Paying a lot for energy to obtain just over 3 bitcoin tokens will no longer make financial sense for them, according to this logic.

It's similar to what has happened with extracting oil. As the supply of oil gets reduced and as the fossil fuel gets harder to extract, smaller players drop out, unable to compete with the financial and technological resources of a Big Oil company.

Still, regardless of what happens, one thing's for sure. There's still an incredible amount of energy that will be spent to unveil bitcoin — and it will remain a controversial topic for a while.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rafael Nam
Rafael Nam is NPR's senior business editor.