The cryptocurrency market was virtually unstoppable last year, gaining more than 3,300% in market cap -- nearly $600 billion -- from where it began. The allure of the blockchain technology that underpins most virtual currencies, along with the perceived anonymity of transactions, continues to drive new investment.

Yet, truth be told, most Americans still don't know a lot about cryptocurrencies. A January survey conducted by Cobinhood, a cryptocurrency service platform, found that just 56% of the more than 1,000 people it surveyed knew what cryptocurrency is, and just 21% knew where to buy virtual currencies. A further 11% correctly guessed that there were more than 1,500 digital currencies to choose from, meaning the other 89% polled got it wrong. In other words, most folks don't understand how any of this works, which is really scary considering how much money we've seen flow into cryptocurrencies over the past year. 

A physical gold bitcoin on a table.

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A few months ago we attempted to tackle this lack of knowledge by examining the basics of cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology, and more recently cryptocurrency mining. Today, we'll expand on this latter point by taking a closer look at the side-by-side differences of "mined" cryptocurrencies versus non-mined ones. And, as always, we'll do so in plain English, without all the technical jargon.

What's the purpose of mined and non-mined cryptocurrency?

Though they are, by name, opposites, the purpose of mined and non-mined cryptocurrency is the same: validation. Ultimately, each transaction processed over a blockchain network needs to be verified by someone to ensure that the same virtual token wasn't spent twice. In effect, it describes the process of proofing a transaction to make sure it's true. A group of transactions is considered to be part of a "block," and when a block of transactions has been validated, it joins the previously validated blocks to create a chain of true transactions, or a "blockchain."

What is "mining"?

Cryptocurrency mining describes a process where an individual, group of individuals, or a business, will use high-powered computers to solve complex mathematical equations in an effort to validate a block of transactions. These mathematical equations are part of the encryption that protects transactions from cybercriminals, as well as other people who shouldn't have access to sender and receiver data.

Only the first individual, group, or business to solve these equations and validate a block of transaction receives what's called a "block reward." In the proof-of-work model, as this is known, block rewards are paid out in the cryptocurrency that's been validated. For instance, if you validated a block of transactions on Ethereum's network, thereby proving the transactions as true, you would be paid in Ether tokens as a reward. Miners make money by either hanging on to these rewards as an investment and cashing out later, or immediately converting their tokens to a fiat currency, like the U.S. dollar.

Servers connected to a monitor for cryptocurrency mining.

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The downsides of mined cryptocurrencies

Of course, there are downsides with mining. In particular, mining can be very costly because it uses a lot of electricity. Mined cryptocurrencies with smaller market caps usually have less in the way of competition than, say, bitcoin or Ethereum. Mining bitcoin requires specialized ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) chips and massive servers, which can rack up expensive electrical bills. This means electricity costs come into play, which is a big reason China, a relatively low-cost country for electricity costs on a kilowatt-per-hour basis, is home to four out of five of the world's largest bitcoin mining farms.

In addition to electricity costs, massive mining farms may need to spend quite a bit of money on new equipment, which can go obsolete in a matter of months. Similarly, large mining farms may require cooling systems, since servers and graphics processing units can generate a lot of heat. 

The proof-of-work model is also potentially vulnerable to having an individual or group gain control of 51% of its network's computing power. If a hacker or entity gained this much control, it would be possible to essentially hold the network, and its investors, hostage. For prominently mined cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, and Monero, this isn't a big concern. However, smaller cryptocurrencies with long block processing times and weak daily volume could be susceptible.

A physical silver and gold Ripple coin.

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How does transaction validation work for non-mined cryptocurrencies?

On the other end of the spectrum are non-mined cryptocurrencies, such as Ripple, Stellar, Cardano, EOS, and NEO, to name a few.

Non-mined virtual currencies operate on a model known as "proof-of-stake." There are no high-powered computers and competitions in the traditional sense to see who can be the first to validate a block of transactions, which means the costs for this method are substantially lower. Instead, ownership in a cryptocurrency (i.e., your stake) is your ticket to being able to proof transactions. Think of it this way: The more of a cryptocurrency you own, and the longer you've held that cryptocurrency for, the more likely you are to be chosen to validate a block of transactions. The more times your name appears in the proverbial hat, the better chance it'll be picked out.

Of course, there are fail-safes built in that prevent larger stakeholders from dominating the validation process. There are a host of randomized ways that stakeholders can be chosen to proof transactions, which ensures that smaller stakeholders always have a chance.

Also, proof-of-stake rewards those who validate transactions differently. Instead of being paid in newly mined tokens or fractions of a token, stakeholders receive the aggregate transaction fees from a block of transactions. These fees may not equal as much as a block reward, but understand that the costs of this validation method are much, much lower.

An annoyed millennial with his arms crossed in front of his laptop.

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The downsides of non-mined cryptocurrencies

Given the substantially lower costs associated with proof-of-stake, you might think it's a better way to validate transactions. It does, however, still have downsides. For example, even though there's no concern that an entity can gain control over 51% of a network's computing power with proof-of-stake, if an entity could gain control of 51% of all outstanding tokens it could hold the network and its stakeholders hostage. Of course, there's not much likelihood this will happen with high-market-cap digital currencies. However, virtual currencies with low market caps may be susceptible to this vulnerability.

It's also worth pointing out that the proof-of-stake model may allow bigger stakeholders to have more say in the direction a network and token heads in the future. For instance, most NEO tokens are held by a few of its founding team members. Though this helps with transaction processing times and network consensus since there are very few stakeholders, it also makes NEO a centralized, rather than decentralized, cryptocurrency. In other words, a few major players could wield a lot of power within the proof-of-stake model, which simply wouldn't be possible with proof-of-work. 

Which method is best?

As noted, both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. But if there is an X-factor here that hasn't been discussed, it's that eventually some of the most prominent mined cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, will reach their token supply limit. At such a point, it would only make sense for mined cryptocurrencies to switch over to the non-mined, proof-of-stake method. Since proof-of-stake significantly reduces electricity costs and consumption, as well as takes away the computing network threat associated with proof-of-work, my belief is we'll see a slow but steady shift toward non-mined cryptocurrencies in the future. 

Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks or cryptocurrencies mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks or cryptocurrencies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.