The cryptocurrency market has grown dramatically in the past year, with the total value of all outstanding offerings approaching $1 trillion as of early 2018. Bitcoin (BTC-USD) was the pioneer in the space, but up-and-coming rivals have also made a big splash and are aiming at even greater highs. Thanks to huge gains in 2017, Ripple (XRP-USD) has become one of the biggest cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin.
As the prices of cryptocurrencies have gone up, investors have generally taken one of two paths toward exploiting favorable trends. Speculators simply make purchases on the open market, using a variety of different exchanges to obtain the cryptocurrencies of their choice. Mining operations have also become a big business, with massive bitcoin mining centers strategically located in areas where favorable weather, low electricity costs, and access to computing capacity combine to make it as efficient as possible to solve the mathematical problems needed to unlock new blocks of cryptocurrency.
It's therefore a logical question to ask how one can go about mining Ripple; unfortunately for aspiring miners, there's a simple answer: It's impossible. Still, as you'll see below, that doesn't mean that there's no way to potentially profit from the rising popularity of Ripple.
How Ripple is different
Bitcoin and many of the most popular cryptocurrencies rely on mining as a way of gradually adding to the monetary base in a controlled and deliberate manner. Bitcoin, for instance, has already issued more than 75% of the maximum supply of 21 million that will eventually be available to those who've shown the proof of work necessary to receive block rewards. The problems that miners have to solve are designed to become more difficult as outstanding bitcoin approaches the maximum available supply, slowing monetary expansion.
The benefit of a mining-based cryptocurrency is that market conditions in part help determine the amount of effort put into creating new blocks. When prices are low, the cost of mining cryptocurrency can exceed their value, leading to less mining activity. Rising prices lead to massive investment in mining operations, as the market has seen recently due to bitcoin's meteoric rise.
Ripple, however, doesn't have mining. The maximum supply of 100 billion Ripple already exists, with the founders of Ripple Labs having individually kept 20 billion Ripple originally and contributed the remaining 80 billion to the company. As of late December, Ripple Labs had distributed more than 38.7 billion Ripple including business agreements that are still pending. But the company still held 6.25 billion Ripple directly, and it had put more than half of the supply -- 55 billion Ripple -- in an escrow account.
The basics of escrowed Ripple
Ripple Labs explained why it used the escrow arrangement. The company claims that it has been "a responsible steward of XRP supply for almost five years and has clearly demonstrated a tremendous track record of investing in and supporting the XRP ecosystem." Yet it admitted that concerns about a potential flood of the cryptocurrency onto the market could harm current investors in Ripple.
The way the escrow will work is relatively simple. Over the next four and a half years, one of 55 different escrow contracts will expire on the first day of each month. Each contract will cover 1 billion Ripple. When each contract expires, that 1 billion Ripple will become available for Ripple Labs' use in rewarding market makers or for sale to institutional investors. If any of the month's supply of Ripple goes unused, then it will be put back into escrow, with a new expiration date that's one month later than the most distant current contract.
It's therefore possible that the circulating supply of Ripple will more than double between now and mid-2022. However, Ripple Labs notes that it has used an average of about 300 million Ripple per month over the past year and a half. At that rate, it would likely take three or four 55-month cycles -- or around 14 to 18 years -- to go through all 55 billion Ripple in escrow.
Centralized control of a decentralized cryptocurrency?
Critics of Ripple argue that it isn't a legitimate cryptocurrency, because it doesn't pass the popular test of decentralization. Ripple Labs initially controlled its trusted validating nodes, and although it has moved to authorize third-party validating nodes, some believe that it isn't doing enough to decentralize its operations.
Ripple Labs, however, responds that even traditional cryptocurrencies aren't truly decentralized. A May 2017 piece from the company noted that just five bitcoin mining pools controlled more than half of the cryptocurrency's activity, leading to concerns of collaboration that could threaten the integrity of the entire blockchain.
In the end, Ripple's success will depend on whether financial institutions start to adopt the cryptocurrency as a medium of exchange rather than simply using Ripple Labs' payment network in their own way. That will never open the door to true Ripple mining, but it could justify the bullish beliefs of those speculators who've taken large positions in Ripple through market purchases.