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22bitcoin-tmagArticle

Bitcoins are invisible money, backed by no government, useful only as a speculative investment or online currency, but creating them commands a surprisingly hefty real-world infrastructure.

“What we have here are money-printing machines,” said Emmanuel Abiodun, 31, founder of the company that built the Iceland installation, shouting above the din of the computers. “We cannot risk that anyone will get to them.”

Mr. Abiodun is one of a number of entrepreneurs who have rushed, gold-fever style, into large-scale Bitcoin mining operations in just the last few months. All of these people are making enormous bets that Bitcoin will not collapse, as it has threatened to do several times.

Just last week, moves by Chinese authorities caused the price of a Bitcoin to drop briefly below $500. If the system did crash, the new computers would be essentially useless because they are custom-built for Bitcoin mining.

Miners, though, are among the virtual-currency faithful, believing that Bitcoin will turn into a new, cheaper way of sending money around the world, leaving behind its current status as a largely speculative commodity.

Most of the new operations popping up guard their secrecy closely, but Mr. Abiodun agreed to show his installation for the first time. An earnest young Briton, with the casual fashion taste of the tech cognoscenti, he was a computer programmer at HSBC in London when he decided to invest in specialized computers that would carry out constant Bitcoin mining.

The computers that do the work eat up so much energy that electricity costs can be the deciding factor in profitability. There are Bitcoin mining installations in Hong Kong and Washington State, among other places, but Mr. Abiodun chose Iceland, where geothermal and hydroelectric energy are plentiful and cheap. And the arctic air is free and piped in to cool the machines, which often overheat when they are pushed to the outer limits of their computing capacity.

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