L2 Scaling Solutions for Bitcoin Explained
article-1541

L2 Scaling Solutions for Bitcoin Explained

8 Min.

Basics

Layer 2 (L2) solutions for Bitcoin are protocols built on top of the original cryptocurrency's blockchain. These additions aim to improve the network's efficiency and expand its capabilities. By handling transactions off the main (Layer 1) blockchain, L2 solutions reduce its load and offer a number of advantages. These technologies are crucial in addressing the blockchain trilemma and fostering the growth of Bitcoin's ecosystem. Many market participants view Bitcoin primarily as a store of value. However, L2 solutions significantly enhance its functionality, enabling it to support complex applications and systems.

Addressing Bitcoin's Challenges With Layer 2 Solutions

Initially designed as a decentralized and secure payment system, Bitcoin has encountered significant scalability issues as its popularity has grown. The original cryptocurrency struggles with a block creation time of 10 minutes and a throughput of seven transactions per second (TPS), leading to higher fees and delays during peak times.

Additionally, Bitcoin's Script language limits the development of complex smart contracts and decentralized applications (dapps). Layer 2 solutions have emerged to address these challenges. Beyond improving scalability, Layer 2 solutions enable new possibilities within the Bitcoin ecosystem:

  • Enhanced Programmability: L2 solutions facilitate the use of complex smart contracts, paving the way for decentralized finance (DeFi), non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and other Web3 innovations.
  • DeFi on Bitcoin: Technologies like Lightning Network and Stacks allow for low-cost, intermediary-free transactions, enabling users to trade, lend, and borrow.
  • Solving the Scalability Trilemma: Bitcoin-L2 solutions help balance decentralization, security, and performance. While the primary network prioritizes decentralization and security, Layer 2 solutions significantly enhance scalability.

How Do Bitcoin's Layer 2 Solutions Work?

Layer 2 solutions for Bitcoin work off-chain, significantly reducing the load on the primary blockchain. This allows users to conduct numerous transactions without recording each one directly on the blockchain, thereby increasing throughput and drastically reducing fees, making retail payments more feasible. Key implementations of Bitcoin Layer 2 solutions include state channels, rollups, and sidechains.

State Channels

State channels are a key component of Layer 2 solutions, facilitating rapid and low-cost transactions between users by leveraging dedicated communication channels. Cryptocurrency transactions typically involve interaction between wallets, requiring blockchain consensus validation to update the network state. Each transaction necessitates validation, causing delays and costs.

State channels streamline this process by allowing participants to transact off-chain. A multisig address is created to hold funds on behalf of the participants. Transactions update the off-chain state without touching the main blockchain, each new transaction overwriting the previous state.

This off-chain communication continues until the session ends. At that point, the final balances are consolidated and submitted as a single transaction to the main blockchain, updating the network state. State channels enhance transaction speed and reduce fees, particularly beneficial for multiple transfers. An example of this technology is the Lightning Network, designed for micropayments.

The Lightning Network (LN) is a Layer 2 Bitcoin solution that uses payment channels between users to facilitate transactions. Originating from Satoshi Nakamoto's 2009 proposal, the concept was further developed by Joseph Poon and Thaddeus Dryja in 2015, culminating in "The Bitcoin Lightning Network" paper. LN operates off the main Bitcoin network, processing up to a million transactions per second. Users open an LN channel by depositing Bitcoin into a multisig address, conducting transactions within the channel. The network updates balances and consolidates transaction data into a single Bitcoin blockchain entry when the channel closes.

This protocol significantly reduces fees and speeds up transactions. LN's widespread adoption includes numerous merchants and some centralized exchanges for deposits and withdrawals. As of June 2024, there are 13,600 LN nodes and 52,060 payment channels, with a capacity of 4,971 BTC (approximately $344 million), according to 1ML.

Sidechains

Sidechains provide a way to conduct transactions without overloading the main network. These independent blockchains are linked to the primary network but operate with a degree of autonomy, employing their own consensus algorithms and various approaches distinct from state channels. Unlike the primary layer, sidechains can have vastly different architectures. For Bitcoin, sidechains enable the execution of smart contracts and underpin complex protocols such as decentralized exchanges (DEXs).

Connected to the mainnet via bridges, sidechains enhance the ecosystem's functionality. Users can transfer assets between chains using specialized smart contracts that lock a certain amount in one network and release an equivalent in another.

The implementation of sidechains varies, especially in terms of security. Some sidechains use their own security systems, remaining independent of the main blockchain while enabling resource exchange. Others integrate more closely with the parent network's security mechanisms. Notable examples of Bitcoin sidechains include Stacks and the Rootstock Infrastructure Framework (RIF).

Stacks brings Bitcoin-compatible smart contracts while leveraging the security of the Bitcoin blockchain. This semi-autonomous Bitcoin sidechain operates on a unique consensus algorithm called Proof of Transfer (PoX), which combines Proof-of-Stake and Proof-of-Burn mechanisms. It connects Bitcoin miners and Stacks stakers. Bitcoin miners use BTC to earn the right to validate blocks on the Stacks sidechain, receiving rewards in STX tokens. Conversely, Stacks stakers lock their STX to earn BTC rewards.

Instead of directly using the Bitcoin blockchain, Stacks relies on Bitcoin miners for validation. An integrated bridge facilitates the transfer of crypto assets between the networks, with SBTC representing Bitcoin on Stacks. Stacks supports smart contracts and DeFi applications. As of now, the total value locked (TVL) in Stacks exceeds $126 million.

Rollups

Rollups are Layer 2 solutions built on top of the primary network, mainly functioning as transaction execution layers. They enhance transaction speed and significantly reduce fees. Rollups aggregate transactions into batches, which are then sent to the main network (Layer 1) for final validation. Each batch can contain up to 10,000 transactions.

Many rollup solutions employ zero-knowledge proof methods, known collectively as ZK-Rollups. Celestia Labs developed Rollkit, a platform offering a modular framework for supporting sovereign rollups on the Bitcoin blockchain. According to the project team, Rollkit allows developers to create rollups with custom execution environments, leveraging Bitcoin's data availability guarantees and resistance to reorganization. This technology optimizes block space, reduces fees, and facilitates the implementation of DeFi solutions on Bitcoin.

Rollkit's development was enabled by the Taproot upgrade and inspired by the Ordinals protocol, which demonstrated how arbitrary data could be published in Bitcoin blocks. The developers only needed to implement functions for sending and retrieving rollups. Rollkit supports customizable execution layers, including EVM, CosmWasm, and Cosmos SDK. The team tested integration using a local Bitcoin testnet and Ethermint to run the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). Another example of a rollup project for the Bitcoin network is the Merlin Protocol.

Merlin Protocol is a pioneering rollup project designed to integrate valuable Bitcoin assets with the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), overcoming Bitcoin network limitations. Utilizing Particle Network's BTC Connect protocol, users can access the network directly through their Bitcoin wallets. To achieve scalability, Merlin employs ZK-Rollups, with transaction finalization occurring on the Bitcoin blockchain, ensuring high security.

Merlin supports Web3 wallets like MetaMask, offering a seamless user experience. Projects created on Ethereum and other EVM networks can be migrated to Merlin with minimal code changes. The protocol accommodates BRC-20 and ERC-standard tokens, and has already attracted DeFi applications with a total value locked (TVL) exceeding $1 billion.

Potential Challenges of Bitcoin Layer 2 Solutions

Layer 2 solutions and sidechains in the Bitcoin ecosystem rely on bridges to interact with the main blockchain. This typically involves locking assets on Bitcoin's main chain while issuing equivalent tokens on the secondary layer. This method, however, has security vulnerabilities. Bridges built on this model have frequently been targets of hacking, resulting in billions of dollars in losses. Despite ongoing efforts to improve bridge protocols, many Bitcoin Layer 2 solutions still depend on the potentially insecure lock-and-release model.

The effectiveness of rollups and state channels hinges on the finalization speed and cost on the main network. The efficiency of these Layer 2 solutions is directly influenced by these factors. While many existing solutions have proven viable, continuous improvements are necessary. Significant optimizations were achieved with Ethereum's Dencun upgrade, suggesting that similar efforts will be essential for advancing Bitcoin Layer 2 technologies.

Future Evolution of Bitcoin's L2 Solutions

Bitcoin's Layer 2 solutions are set to advance further, expanding functionality and enhancing network performance.

Several potential development directions include:

  • Technological Enhancements: Advancements in cryptographic methods and consensus algorithms could enhance the security, reliability, and user-friendliness of L2 solutions.
  • Wide Adoption: Increasing awareness of new technologies could lead to their widespread adoption among market participants and organizations.
  • Integration With TradFi: Bitcoin's L2 networks may integrate more closely with traditional financial systems, paving the way for innovative products and services.
  • Focus on User Experience: Developers will focus on improving UX to attract a broader audience.
  • Collaboration and Standardization: Closer cooperation among L2 projects could lead to standardization and interoperability.

Conclusion

Layer 2 solutions play a key role in improving Bitcoin's ability to handle more transactions and function better, addressing its inherent limitations. By handling transactions off the main blockchain, L2 solutions ease network congestion, decrease fees, and enable faster transactions. These advancements make Bitcoin more adaptable, supporting complex applications and systems. Technologies such as the Lightning Network, Stacks, and Merlin Protocol demonstrate the potential of L2 solutions to integrate with and enhance Bitcoin's capabilities. As these technologies advance, they will continue to promote the growth and adoption of Bitcoin in various sectors, including decentralized finance and traditional financial systems.

Layer 2
Sidechain
Rollups
State Channels
Follow us
Hexn operates under HEXN (CZ) s.r.o. and HEXN Markets LLC. HEXN (CZ) s.r.o. is incorporated in the Czech Republic with the company number 19300662, registered office at Cimburkova 916/8, Žižkov, Praha. HEXN (CZ) s.r.o. is registered as a virtual assets service provider (VASP). HEXN Markets LLC is incorporated in St. Vincent and Grenadines with the company number 2212 LLC 2022, registered office at Beachmont Business Centre, 379, Kingstown, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines