The secret lives of students who mine cryptocurrency in their dorm rooms

Mark was a sophomore at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he began mining cryptocurrencies more or less by accident.

In November 2016, he stumbled on NiceHash, an online marketplace for individuals to mine cryptocurrency for willing buyers. His desktop computer, boosted with a graphics card, was enough to get started. Thinking he might make some money, Mark, who asked not to use his last name, downloaded the platform’s mining software and began mining for random buyers in exchange for payments in bitcoin. Within a few weeks, he had earned back the $120 cost of his graphics card, as well as enough to buy another for $200.

From using NiceHash, he switched to mining ether, then the most popular bitcoin alternative. To increase his computational power, he scrounged up several unwanted desktop computers from a professor who “seemed to think that they were awful and totally trash.” When equipped with the right graphics cards, the “trash” computers worked fine.

Each time Mark mined enough ether to cover the cost, he bought a new graphics card, trading leftover currency into bitcoin for safekeeping. By March 2017, he was running seven computers, mining ether around the clock from his dorm room. By September his profits totaled one bitcoin—worth roughly $4,500 at the time. Now, four months later, after bitcoin’s wild run and the diversification of his cryptocoin portfolio, Mark estimates he has $20,000 in digital cash. “It just kind of blew up,” he says.

Four of Mark's desktop computer miners.
Four of Mark’s desktop computer miners. (Mark)

Exploiting a crucial competitive advantage and motivated by profit and a desire to learn the technology, students around the world are launching cryptocurrency mining operations right from their dorm rooms. In a typical mining operation, electricity consumption accounts for the highest fraction of operational costs, which is why the largest bitcoin mines are based in China. But within Mark’s dorm room, MIT foots the bill. That gives him and other student miners the ability to earn higher profit margins than most other individual miners.

In the months since meeting Mark, I’ve interviewed seven other miners from the US, Canada, and Singapore who ran or currently run dorm room cryptomining operations, and I’ve learned of many more who do the same. Initially, almost every student began mining because it was fun, cost-free, and even profitable. As their operations grew, so did their interest in cryptocurrency and in blockchain, the underlying technology. Mining, in other words, was an unexpected gateway into discovering a technology that many predict will dramatically transform our lives.

While it’s impossible to estimate how many dorm room cryptominers exist globally, it’s likely their numbers are growing as cryptocurrency values continue to balloon. Once they graduate, these students are poised to play a critical role in shaping the next technology revolution.

A dorm room operation

Years before meeting Mark, when I was a junior at MIT, I had heard rumors of my peers mining bitcoin. After its value exploded, and along with it, the necessary computational and electrical power to mine it, I assumed that dorm room mining was no longer viable. What I hadn’t considered was the option of mining alternate cryptocurrencies, including ethereum, which can and do thrive as small-scale operations.

When mining for cryptocurrency, computational power, along with low power costs, is king. Miners around the world compete to solve math problems for a chance to earn digital coins. The more computational power you have, the greater your chances of getting returns.

 The more computational power you have, the greater your chances of getting returns. 

To profitably mine bitcoin today, you need an application-specific integrated circuit, or ASIC—specialized hardware designed for bitcoin-mining efficiency. An ASIC can have 100,000 times more computational power than a standard desktop computer equipped with a few graphics cards. But ASICs are expensive—the most productive ones easily costseveral thousands of dollars—and they suck power. If bitcoin prices aren’t high enough to earn more revenue than the cost of electricity, the pricey hardware cannot be repurposed for any other function.

In contrast, alternate currencies like ethereum are “ASIC-resistant,” because ASICS designed to mine ether don’t exist. That means ether can be profitably mined with just a personal computer. Rather than rely solely on a computer’s core processor (colloquially called a “CPU”), however, miners pair it with graphics cards (“GPUs”) to increase the available computational power. Whereas CPUs are designed to solve one problem at a time, GPUs are designed to simultaneously solve hundreds. The latter dramatically raises the chances of getting coins.

Another desktop computer miner that sits on Mark's desk and doubles as his computer for work.
Another desktop computer miner that sits on Mark’s desk and doubles as his computer for work. (Mark)

Most of the dorm room miners I spoke to mined alternative currencies with personal computers and graphics cards. Some used their desktops, while others built their own computers. A few of them even used their laptops. Pretty much everyone already had graphics cards for gaming or other purposes before realizing that they met the hardware requirements for mining.

“It just so happened that at the time I was reading up on mining, I was building a personal computer for purposes of video editing…some AI stuff, and whatever I throw at it,” says Arjun Singh Brar, a recent graduate of Singapore University of Technology and Design. With access to his dorm’s free electricity, he thought, “Why don’t I just give [mining] a try.”

Free electricity and massive amounts of heat

By Mark’s estimation, four of the other 35 residents on his floor also have homegrown rigs. Unlike his setup, most just use a single desktop with one or two graphics cards.

None of them really know what MIT’s policy is on their profit-generating activities, so they take precautions to avoid getting caught. “I have a lot of experience with exactly what outlets in my room can pull what amounts of current before I trip the breaker,” Mark says. He knows it trips if he ever overclocks any one of his computers by running its CPU at a faster speed than it was designed for. That causes his entire operation to shut down, which could draw the scrutiny of the university’s facilities department. (MIT did not respond to request for comment.)

 “All chocolate I accidentally leave here melts, but it’s not horribly uncomfortable.” 

So far, everyone on Mark’s floor has flown under the radar. MIT monitors electricity use by building rather than by individual, and the miners almost certainly don’t pull enough power to make their dorm’s electricity use look anomalous. All of the other miners I spoke to had similar experiences; their universities raised no objections—either out of ignorance or apathy. 1 (SUTD and Stanford did not respond to requests for comment. Babson College said it didn’t “have anything to add on this subject.”)

Mark figures the university owes him, anyway. “The only thing that I’m concerned about is if somebody at MIT comes after me for unnecessarily using their electricity, which I think is kind of silly considering how much it costs 2 to go here,” he says. James Spann, a sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology who also mines crypto, echoed Mark’s reasoning: “The electricity and internet are part of the tuition.”

What dorm miners don’t pay for in electricity, they pay for in discomfort. Even without the radiator running in the middle of a Boston winter, the temperature in Mark’s room is well above desirable. His rig is “essentially a 2,000-watt heater running at all times,” Mark says. “All chocolate I accidentally leave here melts, but it’s not horribly uncomfortable.” This is even after he moved his two most efficient mining rigs to his girlfriend’s room three floors below because the heat in the summer was unbearable.

Other miners described how they handled the massive amounts of heat—and what their significant others and roommates put up with. Rahul, a Stanford class of 2015 electrical engineer, drew his girlfriend’s ire for his rig. “It was very loud and blew a lot of hot air. My girlfriend was very upset that it had to be on at night,” he laughs…

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