The Shortcomings of Bitcoin and the Evolutionary Leap: The Lightning Network

Bitcoin, the pioneer of decentralized digital currencies, has undoubtedly transformed the financial landscape. However, it is not without its limitations. The Lightning Network emerges as a powerful upgrade to address several shortcomings of the Bitcoin protocol. This article will delve into the technical details of Bitcoin's challenges and explore how the Lightning Network provides an innovative solution.

1. Scalability Challenge:


Bitcoin's blockchain operates on a Proof-of-Work (PoW) consensus mechanism, limiting transaction throughput. Bitcoin, on average, makes 7 transactions per second (TPS), which is extremely low compared to other chains such as Ethereum, which makes 20-30 TPS, while Solana does 65,000 TPS. As a result, the network faces scalability challenges, causing delays and higher transaction fees during periods of high demand.

However, it's worth noting that other chains, such as Ethereum, boast a high TPS due to their utilization of a different mechanism: Proof-of-Stake. In this model, designated validators handle the mining process instead of attempting to solve a mathematical problem, as seen in Bitcoin. This represents a complete tradeoff against the decentralization feature of the blockchain.

Lightning Network:

The Lightning Network is a second-layer scaling solution built on top of the Bitcoin blockchain. It introduces payment channels that allow users to transact off-chain, reducing the burden on the main blockchain. A payment channel is made up of 2 parties, where a set of rules are agreed upon on creation. On fulfillment, the channel automatically closes, validating the transaction. There is no limit on how many payment channels you can create; thus, there is no curb on the number of transactions you can do.

2. High Transaction Fees:


Bitcoin transactions are processed on-chain, meaning they are recorded on the main Bitcoin blockchain. The block size in Bitcoin is limited, so there is competition among users to include their transactions in the limited space available in each block. When the demand for transactions exceeds the available space, users can set higher fees to incentivize miners to prioritize their transactions. During periods of high demand, such as network congestion or increased transaction volume, Bitcoin transaction fees can spike significantly.

On the positive, fees discourage users from flooding the network with trivial transactions. Without them, anyone could spam the network, slowing it down and making it unusable for legitimate transactions.

Lightning Network:

Lightning Network transactions occur off-chain, not immediately recorded on the main blockchain. Instead, only the net result of multiple Lightning transactions is settled on the blockchain. Parties can conduct as many transactions as they desire in a payment channel. When the channel is closed, all transactions are compressed into a single net transaction posted on the Bitcoin blockchain. As a result, Lightning Network transactions are not subject to the same on-chain limitations, allowing for a high volume of transactions with significantly lower fees.

3. Instantaneous Transactions:


Bitcoin transactions are processed on-chain and rely on the blockchain's confirmation of blocks. The average block confirmation time in Bitcoin is around 10 minutes. This means that users often have to wait for a block to be mined before their transactions are confirmed and irreversible. For certain use cases, especially those requiring quick and time-sensitive transactions, the confirmation time in Bitcoin can lead to delays and a poor user experience.

A transaction with one (or more) confirmations can be reversed during a re-org. Increasing the number of confirmations is just decreasing the chance that the transaction could ever be re-orged out of the chain. Satoshi provided calculations for confirmation reliability in Section 11 of the Bitcoin whitepaper (where he describes the exponential drop-off in the probability of the transaction being reversed (re-orged) out of the chain).

Lightning Network:

The Lightning Network introduces a layer-2 scaling solution that operates off-chain, allowing faster and more instantaneous transactions. Lightning Network transactions within an established payment channel occur instantly and do not require confirmation on the main blockchain. Since payments are off-chain, users can enjoy near-instantaneous transactions, creating a seamless and responsive user experience.

4. Micropayments:


For micropayments, where the transaction value is very low, high on-chain fees in Bitcoin can make such transactions economically unviable. The cost of the transaction might outweigh the value being transferred.

Lightning Network:

Lightning Network facilitates micropayments due to its low fees, making it suitable for small in-game purchases, content micropayments, and more.

How the Lightning Network Works

The Lightning Network (LN) operates on the foundation of payment channels, where two parties establish a channel by jointly signing an initial funding transaction broadcasted to the Bitcoin blockchain. This transaction, essentially a 2-of-2 Multisig, requires both parties to sign for fund withdrawal. The deposited funds provide liquidity to the payment channel and facilitate exchanges between the parties.

Upon completing the initial funding on the blockchain, subsequent transactions occur within the payment channel and remain off-chain. Spending within the channel requires mutual agreement and confirmation of balances through the signatures of both parties. Commitment transactions play a crucial role in LN channels. These transactions solidify each party's commitment to the latest updated account balance. In case of unreachability, the balance can be paid out, and the payment channel can be closed.

Handling transactions involving multiple parties in the Lightning Network relies on a concept known as routing. In a network of payment channels, individuals can send BTC to any other party, even without a direct connection, by utilizing intermediary parties as bridges. These intermediaries relay BTC until it reaches the intended recipient, charging a small fee for this service. However, it's essential to ensure that each intermediary along the route has sufficient liquidity to match the transaction amount.

Hash Time-Locked Contracts (HTLCs) are a key technical concept in LN for conditional payments. HTLCs include cryptographic hash functions, pre-images, and time-locks. The receiver hashes a random number and sends the hash to the payer, routing it with the transaction. The actual data, known as the pre-image, produces a specific hash value when hashed. Time locks define the period within which the condition must be fulfilled for the payment to proceed. If the receiver fails to claim the funds by providing a pre-image whose hash matches the one from the sender, the funds are reclaimed back to the sender.

In summary, the Lightning Network's use of payment channels, commitment transactions, routing, and HTLCs forms a sophisticated and efficient solution for off-chain BTC transactions, offering speed, scalability, and reduced transaction fees.


While Bitcoin paved the way for decentralized currency, its scalability, high fees, and transaction speed limitations spurred the need for innovation. The Lightning Network emerges as a groundbreaking solution, introducing off-chain scaling and enabling new possibilities for efficient and economical transactions. By addressing these shortcomings, the Lightning Network marks a significant leap in the evolution of decentralized financial systems.



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