The industry is now focusing on a potential savings blessing: a long-awaited software upgrade to the most popular cryptocurrency platform, Ethereum, which provides the technology backbone for thousands of crypto projects. The upgrade – known as the merger – has gained near-legendary status after years of delays that have left some insiders wondering if it will ever happen.
But if all goes according to plan, the merger will take place around September 15, more than eight years after it was initially discussed. The change will turn Ethereum into a more energy-efficient infrastructure, addressing widespread criticism that the climate impact of cryptocurrencies outweighs its potential benefits. It will lay the groundwork for future upgrades to reduce the exorbitant fees required to transact in Ether, the platform’s signature currency and the second most valuable digital asset after Bitcoin.
“This transition essentially lays out a roadmap for a future that is more scalable, much more energy efficient and more usable for ordinary people,” said Joseph Ayoub, an analyst at Citi who has studied the merger. “It lays the groundwork for adoption.”
But the stakes are deep. Even by cryptographic standards, the process is almost ridiculously complex.
For months, insiders have been engaged in frantic, jargon-laden discussions about developments such as the Goerli Testnet Merge and the Bellatrix upgrade from Beacon Chain, crucial software changes that led to the main event. A failed merger could endanger thousands of crypto applications running on Ethereum, which collectively handle more than $50 billion in user funds.
“It flies the plane and changes the engine in the sky,” said Chandler Joe, a crypto industry veteran who leads an anti-merger group. “It’s very difficult. It is very dangerous.”
Ethereum is a blockchain, a viewable ledger on which cryptocurrency exchanges are recorded. On-chain transactions are made in Ether.
The platform was started in 2013 by a teenage programmer, Vitalik Buterin, who is now considered one of the industry’s top statesmen. Buterin wanted to create a crypto system that was more flexible than Bitcoin and could instantly execute financial contracts and other complex forms of exchange.
Ethereum’s design allows it to support a range of financial engineering. Programmers can create applications using the software to perform more complex tasks than simple money transfers. Thousands of companies and projects in the experimental world of decentralized finance are now using the platform to offer lending, borrowing and other complex investment options. Many non-fungible tokens – unique digital holdings known as NFTs – are built on ethereum.
In essence, the merger is a change of the ethereum verification system. When someone sends money in a traditional transaction, the bank acts as an intermediary, verifying that someone has enough money to pay someone else’s money.
Encryption works without this broker. In this alternative financial system, transactions are verified by a sparse network of computers. Anyone can connect a device to the network by running a program that solves complex puzzles, an energy-intensive process to confirm transactions. Essentially, computers race against each other: when a puzzle is solved, winning participants are rewarded with new coins with the digital currency they check.
This verification process is widely known as crypto mining and has the technical name “Proof of Work”. By some estimates, the amount of energy consumed each year in mining is comparable to the annual emissions of entire countries.
The merger is set to convert Ethereum into an alternative framework called Proof of Stake, which requires less power. In a proof-of-stake system, computers don’t burn energy sprints to verify transactions. Instead, cryptocurrency investors deposit a certain number of digital currencies into a common pool, which enters them into a lottery. Each time the exchange takes place, a participant is selected from the lottery to verify the transaction and win rewards.
The shift is expected to reduce Ethereum’s energy use by more than 99%, which crypto boosters hope will make the technology more popular.
“The difference in hardware and power consumption is quite large,” said Preston van Loon, the developer working on the integration. “When the NFTs were going off, people would say, ‘I’d love to have an NFT, but it looks like I’m burning a forest. “”
Switching to Proof of Stake can also help solve another of ethereum’s biggest problems: the large fees required to use the network. Ethereum can handle a certain amount of activity at any one time, so when there is demand for the platform, the price of using it goes up. Anyone sending Ether has to pay a “gas fee” – a transaction fee that sometimes goes up to $200.
The merge won’t immediately solve this problem, but the developers say it will lay a critical foundation for future upgrades designed to reduce fees.
Some crypto experts say that a change on this scale could also make Ethereum vulnerable to hacking or other disruptions. “Anytime you make changes to a complex system, unintended consequences must necessarily arise,” said Christopher Calicut, an investor in a crypto venture.
Much of the criticism is at least partly fueled by self-interest. Many of the opponents of Merge are companies that have built expensive data centers to mine ether in a Proof of Work system.
The origins of the merge date back to the time of the creation of ethereum. Buterin raised the possibility of switching to proof of stake in 2014, but at that point, the system had not been tested. The most successful cryptocurrency has been bitcoin, which uses proof of work.
Since then, many newer cryptocurrencies have successfully used Proof of Stake. Ethereum programmers have been working hard on the switch for at least four years. The work is complicated, and progress is slow. Engineers had to create a new blockchain and run tests to check for vulnerabilities or other technological bugs that might disrupt the transition.
A non-profit organization called the Ethereum Foundation helps oversee the platform. But in reality, Ethereum is run by a loose group of engineers around the world. There is no top-down authority organizing the merger. Periodically, programmers come together on publicly broadcast video calls to discuss technical aspects of this transformation.
At one point, the shift to proof-of-stake was supposed to happen as early as 2016. With the merger coming together this year, crypto enthusiasts have been anticipating a June launch date. Then the merger was postponed to August. Now it’s set for the next month.
In the crypto world, the delay has become a bit of a joke. Early on, engineers installed what’s known as a “difficulty bomb” in the Ethereum code. It was designed to keep them honest: after a set amount of time, the bomb was supposed to explode, causing disruptions in the Ethereum network unless it was turned into proof of stake. But each time the bomb was supposed to go off, the engineers created a new piece of code to defuse it, and they somewhat defeated the idea.
“We don’t do it lightly,” said Danny Ryan, a researcher at the Ethereum Foundation who has worked on the platform since 2017. “There has been a myriad of engineering, testing, and academic examination.”
In December 2020, Ethereum programmers took a big step toward consolidation by launching a crypto platform called Beacon Chain, a proof of ownership system designed to provide the basis for an Ethereum upgrade. After two years of testing, the Beacon Chain was finally set to integrate with ethereum in mid-September – the merger that gives the operation its name.
As the merger approaches, companies and entrepreneurs who have a financial stake in Ethereum mining are becoming increasingly concerned. Cryptocurrency mining has become a multi-billion dollar business, dominated by publicly traded companies.
In a recent company report, Hive Blockchain, a digital mining company that earns revenue from both Bitcoin and Ethereum, said the shift to proof-of-stake “could make our mining business less competitive or less profitable.” Hive did not respond to requests for comment.
Some Ethereum miners are resisting. Guo, who ran the Ethereum mining operation in China, mobilized a group of engineers working on an alternative currency to rival the updated Ether.
Despite the rollback, the merger appears to be nearing completion. The final test, known as the Goerli integration, was successfully completed this month.
Ryan said he plans to meet in person with some colleagues to celebrate the actual merger, the culmination of five years of his career.
Planning a celebration is complicated. While the developers estimated the September 15 date, the exact timing of the merge is uncertain and subject to complex technical factors. Any malfunction may cause further delay.
“It could happen at 4 in the morning. It could happen at 2 in the afternoon,” Ryan said. “But I will definitely be awake.”