What a year it's been for cryptocurrencies. With just over two weeks left before we turn the page on 2017, the aggregate market cap of nearly 1,340 cryptocurrencies combined, as of Dec. 10, equaled $437 billion, up close to 2,400% since the year began. Investors seemingly could have thrown a dart at any of the largest virtual currencies and made nearly a lifetime's worth of gains in less than a year.

Bitcoin and blockchain fuel the cryptocurrency rally

Bitcoin, which is usually viewed as the face of the cryptocurrency craze, has rocketed higher, from $967 per coin to as much as $19,000 per coin during the year. Its market cap of $268 billion on Dec. 10 places it well ahead of Dow Jones Industrial Average stalwarts like Visa, Procter & Gamble, and Chevron.

A physical gold bitcoin on a table.

Image source: Getty Images.

The euphoria behind digital currencies can predominantly be summed up as excitement surrounding the use of blockchain technology. Think of blockchain as the infrastructure that virtual currencies are built on. These are digital and decentralized ledgers that record all transactions in a safe and efficient manner, without the need for a financial intermediary like a bank.

The advantages of blockchain technology are numerous. For instance, the fact that it's decentralized -- which means there's no central data hub, but rather, information spread on servers across the globe -- has the potential to improve security. A cyberattack gaining access to information on one server wouldn't be enough to cripple a cryptocurrency.

Since there's no third party involved, there's also the potential for lower transaction costs. And speaking of transactions, since cryptocurrency miners, who are responsible for verifying transactions and creating the aforementioned "blocks" of data, are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there's the real possibility of quicker transactions and faster settlement times -- especially on cross-border transactions. 

Bicycle chains with binary code linked together to represent blockchain technology.

Image source: Getty Images.

Bitcoin who? Say hello to Stellar Lumens

Right now, bitcoin gets all of the glory from crypto-investors, given its market-cap dominance and merchant acceptance. Though it's still hard to live off of bitcoin alone, no other virtual currency is more widely accepted. It's also the first cryptocurrency to begin futures trading on the CBOE Global Markets' and CME Group's platforms. But it's far from the only cryptocurrency with blockchain technology that's turning heads.

Enter Stellar Lumens, stage right. Stellar Lumens, as of Dec. 10, was the 13th largest cryptocurrency by market cap, at $2.28 billion. But it's not so much where it is now as where it came from. Between March 20 and Dec. 10, it's gained over 6,300%! The reason? Look no further than its blockchain.

The easiest way to get noticed by cryptocurrency investors and big businesses is to have blockchain technology that stands out. One of the more intriguing aspects of Stellar's blockchain is that it has built-in smart-contract protocols. That's right, these are the same protocols that have encouraged 200 organizations to test a version of Ethereum's blockchain via the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Smart contracts help facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation of a contract, ensuring the efficiency of peer-to-peer and business-to-business transactions.

Additionally, Stellar offers quick processing capability, with payment transactions expected to resolve on its network in two-to-five seconds. Considering how long cross-border transactions can take to settle, or how long domestic transactions can take on weekends, Stellar's blockchain can possibly fill that void. 

A woman connecting her tablet to IBM's cloud.

Image source: IBM.

Stellar snags its first big enterprise customer

Perhaps most interesting is that Stellar already snagged a major partner in IBM (IBM -1.06%). As announced in October, IBM and KlickEx partnered with Stellar to use its blockchain technology to facilitate cheaper and quicker cross-border transactions. IBM, which generates billions in revenue from global clients, has a dozen international banks developing and deploying this project. According to Jed McCaleb, co-founder of Stellar:

This new innovation and collaboration represents a significant milestone for Stellar as well as the financial technology industry as a whole. For the first time, public blockchain technology is being used in production to facilitate cross-border payments in multiple integrated currency corridors. Currently, cross-border payments take up to several days to clear. This new implementation is poised to affect a profound change in the South Pacific region, and once fully scaled by IBM and its banking partners, could potentially change the way money is moved around the world. 

This partnership also put Stellar Lumens on a collision course with Ripple, which is also attempting to be the go-to blockchain for cross-border payments. Recently, Ripple partnered with American Express (AXP -2.74%) and Banco Santander (SAN -0.62%) to test cross-border non-card payments processed on American Express' FX International Payment network to U.K. Santander. The thesis is that these transactions can be done instantaneously, which would be a major improvement over the aforementioned multiple days' wait time that occurs with current transaction settlement times. 

A risk dial turned to its maximum setting.

Image source: Getty Images.

A word of caution

While this is clearly exciting news for investors in Stellar Lumens, I'd be remiss if I didn't act as the sound of reason and point out two sizable concerns.

First, there are a lot -- and I really mean a lot -- of blockchain options for big businesses to choose from. With more than 1,300 cryptocurrencies in existence, most of which have blockchain technology underlying them, discovering which blockchain is preferred by big business could take years. Plus, the barrier to entry in developing blockchain is practically nonexistent. As long as you have time, money, and a team that knows how to code, you can develop blockchain technology, which some businesses have chosen to do.

The second concern is that the virtual currencies tied to these blockchains could decouple from reality. That's to say it's unclear, in some instances at least, how the virtual currencies would tie into the broader use of the underlying blockchain technology.

Some blockchains incorporate their virtual currencies as a means to exchange currencies instantaneously, which is what might happen with Stellar Lumens, Ripple, and other cryptocurrencies. But the connection between virtual currencies and their underlying blockchain technology isn't always clear, which means the valuation being assigned to these currencies may not make much sense. In other words, buyer beware.