It might be strange to think about, but bitcoins can disappear from circulation almost as easily as – perhaps even more easily than – physical currency can. The subject of exactly how many bitcoins have been removed from circulation through accidental mishap has been speculated upon for a while, but research firm Chainalysis recently released a new study that sheds some light on the matter. According to their findings, the number of bitcoins that have been lost forever could range anywhere from the lowball end of 2.78 million to the higher estimate of 3.79 million.
That's between 17 and 23 percent of all bitcoins in existence. As of this writing, bitcoins are valued at about $16,650, which means that at least $46,287,000,000 worth of the cryptocurrency has more or less totally disappeared. The vast majority of those missing bitcoins – which do not included those which have been hacked or stolen – are from the early days of Bitcoin. For example, Chainalysis' findings assume that all of the original bitcoins mined by the mysterious founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, are permanently lost, locked away forever. But here's where things get tricky, it can be hard to tell if a given sum of bitcoins are truly lost, never to be spent or circulated, or if they're merely being horded. It's a complicated situation, and the world may never know exactly how many bitcoins have been lost when all is said and done. As Chainalysis' Senior Economist Kim Grauer put it to Fortune:
"Firstly, we floated our findings to a few people and they all had different reactions about how surprising the figure was. But what I found most surprising/interesting was how when you unpack what it means to be "lost" things get even more confusing."
If Chainalysis' findings are correct, it could be that bitcoins are more scarce than commonly believed, but like everything else involving cryptocurrencies the question of whether this could cause another spike in bitcoins' market value has a complicated answer. Here's Grauer again:
"That is a very complex question. On the one hand, direct calculations about market cap do not take lost coins into consideration. Considering how highly speculative this field is, those market cap calculations may make it into economic models of the market that impact spending activity … Yet the market has adapted to the actual demand and supply available – just look at exchange behavior. Furthermore, it is well known monetary policy procedure to lower or increase fiat reserves to impact exchange rates. So the answer is yes and no."
In the meantime, if you have any bitcoins, keep hold of them if you can!