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BTC Lightnin’: A Full Primer on Bitcoin’s Fastest-Growing Layer 2

Mar 01, 2024
byNDAX Labs

One might say that Bitcoin was hoisted by its own petard. With surging popularity, it faces the significant hurdle of scalability. Delays and hefty fees have bogged down transactions and stifled Bitcoin's potential for global adoption. But hold onto your hats, folks. Welcome to the future of Bitcoin transactions with Lightning—a Layer 2 solution to Bitcoin's scalability woes.

The Lightning Network overcomes current limitations, offering faster, cheaper transactions with enhanced privacy features. It tackles scalability issues by creating a second layer that facilitates instant micropayments, reducing the transaction load on the Bitcoin blockchain.

Imagine being able to pay for a cup of coffee or tip your favorite musician almost instantaneously and at a low cost! Nostr and X (Twitter) have already showcased this possibility by integrating Lightning payments and tips into their systems. And it's just the beginning.

Through this guide, we invite you to learn about this breakthrough technology and harness its power. We've covered everything from setting up payment channels and earning sats to using lightning wallets.

Understanding the Lightning Network

The concept of the Lightning Network might seem a bit intimidating at first but don’t worry. It's quite straightforward once you break it down. Unlike conventional blockchain solutions, the Lightning Network isn't a blockchain. Instead, it operates off-chain on what we call channels. More on this later. 

But what does this mean for you? Consider this: Bitcoin transactions typically take about 10 minutes or more to confirm and come with a transaction fee that can surpass $50. Not very efficient for your daily purchases or quick transfers, right? Conversely, Lightning Network transactions are completed almost instantaneously for a negligible cost.

Now, you may be wondering how this is all possible. Rather than registering every Bitcoin transaction on the blockchain (which fills up blocks quickly and slows down the process), Lightning allows users to transact off-chain through private payment channels. These off-chain transactions can be numerous and frequent without burdening the Bitcoin network.

In simple terms, the Lightning network can be compared to a bar tab. Rather than paying for each drink separately and waiting for your credit card payment to process each time, you open a tab when you arrive and close it when you leave. All the drinks purchased in between are recorded, but only two transactions involve your bank (in our case, the blockchain) - opening and closing the tab. This makes transactions quicker and more efficient.

The efficiency gains of this Layer 2 solution are quite astounding. To give you an idea, the Bitcoin blockchain can handle about seven transactions per second (TPS). In contrast, the Lightning Network can technically manage millions of TPS. That's even faster than the Visa network!

To make it clearer, we will now break down every component that makes up the Lightning Network. 


Payment channels stand at the heart of the Lightning Network, symbolizing mini-bridges that carry out transactions. But what exactly are they? To elucidate this concept, consider the "bar tab" analogy. When you start buying drinks at a bar and open a tab, that's like opening a payment channel on the Lightning Network.

Behind the scenes, a multi-signature wallet is created, which requires both parties' (sender and receiver's) signatures for transactions. The sender makes an on-chain Bitcoin transaction into this wallet, indicating their intention to transact and effectively 'fund' the channel.

This opens up an alleyway between two users within which transactions can freely flow back and forth, off-chain. Now here's where it gets even more impressive. In much the same way as lightning finds its way to the ground using the path of least resistance, your payments reach their destination without needing direct channels with every separate user. Through a network of channels, your transaction can reach any user, hopping from one channel to another until it gets there.

Every single move in these channels, from buying coffee to zapping sats as tips, doesn't touch the Bitcoin blockchain at all unless you want to close your 'tab.' In other words, only when you want to finalize and secure all transactions on-chain will they be broadcasted to the Bitcoin network.

This design caters exceptionally well for small-sized or everyday transactions. Think microtransactions for gaming or cross-border remittances. The possibilities are endless! However, managing payment channels needs some fine-tuning. This includes understanding how to open and close these channels efficiently, which we'll explore later in this guide.


In the Bitcoin universe, a node is a participant that validates and facilitates transactions. Each node represents a link in an interconnected chain, playing an essential role in broadcasting transactions throughout the network.

Within the Lightning Network's context, these nodes work seamlessly, connecting users to the network. This connection is established using specialized software such as LND (Lightning Network Daemon), c-lightning, or Eclair. Being an active participant means launching your own payment channels with other nodes. It also enables you to route payments across the network, allowing you to be part of this fascinating ecosystem of instant and low-cost transactions.

Hash Time Locks & Multisig Wallets

Hash Time Lock Contracts (HTLCs) and Multi-signature wallets are essential parts of the security and flexibility of the Lightning Network. They might sound complex, but they set a clear framework that makes Lightning even more appealing.

A Hash Time Lock Contract or HTLC is like a digital safety deposit box with added time restrictions. It ensures that a transaction gets fully completed within a stipulated time frame or doesn't happen at all. HTLCs provide assurance to participants in payment channel arrangements and play an integral part in cross-chain atomic swaps (transferring one type of cryptocurrency to another).

On the other hand, multi-signature wallets, as their name suggests, require multiple digital signatures for transactions. Essentially, it's like a jointly owned bank account where all parties must sign off on withdrawals. In the context of the Lightning Network, when you open a channel with someone else, both parties co-sign this multi-signature ('multisig') wallet.

The power of these two features combined makes transacting over Lightning very safe. Perhaps even more interesting is how it allows currencies other than Bitcoin to be used on the network. 

Invoices (QR Codes)

Another aspect that adds to the seamlessness of Lightning Network operations is the invoicing system. Unlike typical Bitcoin transactions, where you'd generally need an address to send funds, the Lightning Network introduces a more advanced and secure model: invoices.

Given Bitcoin's conventional system, public keys are long, complex strings of alphanumeric characters. Imagine trying to type these out whenever you wanted to make a small purchase or send money! But with Lightning, we see a shift towards an invoicing system that uses QR codes for simplicity.

When a receiver wants to accept funds over the Lightning Network, they create what is termed an "invoice." This process involves specifying the exact amount they wish to receive, a payment request code, and an expiration time.

The invoice thus generated is represented as a QR code for efficiency. A scannable image that contains all necessary transaction details encoded within it. The payer simply scans this QR code using their Lightning wallet to complete payment instantly.

Using invoices provides benefits beyond ease of use. It enhances payment security tremendously by eliminating room for error when typing in long public keys. It also facilitates private transactions, adding another layer of privacy on top of what Bitcoin already offers.


Finally, Sats, or Satoshis, form the basic monetary unit in the Lightning Network, a sub-unit of Bitcoin. Named after Bitcoin's enigmatic creator Satoshi Nakamoto, a sat is essentially the cents to your dollar or the pence to your pound but in the Bitcoin universe.

1 Bitcoin equals 100 million sats. This division lends flexibility and convenience while transacting small amounts, something that's crucially important for microtransactions over the Lightning Network. You can use these tiny pieces of Bitcoin to buy a coffee, tip someone for their tweet or blog post, or even pay for streaming services by the second. 

The move to pricing in sats within the Lightning Network holds tremendous long-term implications as well. It could potentially mitigate what is known as "unit bias," where users prefer to own "whole" units rather than fractions—potentially making the digital currency more accessible and appealing to everyone.

Going forward, we'll likely witness more systems adapt this approach to draw more users into this innovative and fast-growing ecosystem.

Setting Up Payment Channels

Understanding the inner mechanics of the Lightning Network is one thing, but what about putting that knowledge to practical use? Well, your Lightning journey begins with setting up payment channels. Let's walk through this process together:

  1. Set up a node: Nodes are the backbone of the Lightning Network; they're points of interaction where transactions occur and have a tremendous impact on your overall user experience. Setting up a node involves downloading software, such as LND (Lightning Network Daemon), c-lightning, or Eclair, and ensuring its consistent online presence. Running a node means becoming an active part of this supercharged network, permitting you to open channels and route payments. Your very own set-up allows you to shape Bitcoin's Layer 2 landscape by choosing precisely how you participate in the network.
  2. Create a wallet: Once your node stands tall, it's time to create your Lightning wallet. That’s a secure digital purse that holds your sats before they pass onto the blockchain. Your wallet is more than just storage! It's akin to your personal interface for the Lightning Network, offering you control over transactions and channels. From sending payments to ensuring adequate liquidity and maintaining channels in good health, it all happens here.
  3. Fund your wallet: In order to deter bad actors, the Lightning Network asks for some skin in the game. Add some sats to your wallet like you would deposit money in a traditional bank account - that's your 'wallet funding.' However, unlike traditional banking scenarios where your money often falls into an abyss of 'bank charges' and excessive fees, your funds contribute to maintaining network integrity in the Lightning Network. They enable speedy transactions and open doors to global connectivity.
  4. Choose a partner: Partnerships are as critical in the Lightning world as they are in ours. Identifying a fitting peer is almost as important as setting up a channel itself because peers play vital roles in conducting seamless transactions across the Lightning network. 
  5. Open a channel: Now comes the exciting part of opening a payment channel. This move effectively assigns how many bitcoins you'd like to commit to that channel once it's established with your selected partner.
  6. Connect mobile wallet: You're almost there! The last step is to connect your mobile wallet, sync it with the newly formed node-channel structure, and voila! You're ready and equipped to shoot off-chain transactions at lightning speed.

Tune in next week to learn more about this revolutionary aspect of Bitcoin.

Remember, NDAX is Canada's best resource for all things crypto - your perfect companion in your adventure through this ever-evolving landscape.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide investment, legal, accounting, tax or any other advice and should not be relied on in that or any other regard. The information contained herein is for information purposes only and is not to be construed as an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of cryptocurrencies or otherwise.