Blockchain and Cryptocurrency: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between blockchain and cryptocurrency?


Part of the confusion around what is blockchain versus what is cryptocurrency is due in part that the terms have come into use. Instead of being introduced by formal definition, the term blockchain developed from “chain of blocks”. Cryptocurrency is a sort-of portmanteau of “cryptographic currency”. But the fundamental difference between these concepts has to do with how distributed ledger technology is used.

Keep reading for a clearer idea on blockchain and cryptocurrency.


crypto vs blockchain

Blockchain as a technology

Blockchain technologyWhen Bitcoin was the only blockchain, there wasn’t much of a distinction between the terms and they were used interchangeably. As the technology matured and a variety of blockchains bloomed, the uses quickly diverged from the pure money aspect. Instead, technologists experimented with ideas like decentralized name registry. Other uses utilized the peer-to-peer aspect to deliver messages in a discrete way. In the end, many of these projects failed to find a good use of the technology. The projects left standing helped demonstrate what was possible with beyond buzzwords.

Cryptocurrency as an asset class

Contrasted with blockchain, cryptocurrency has to do with the use of tokens based on the distributed ledger technology. Anything dealing with buying, selling, investing, trading, microtipping, or other monetary aspects deals with a blockchain native token or subtoken.

Referring to the token as the technology can be right in the case of Bitcoin, but is very different when dealing with other blockchain projects like Ethereum. In this case, the technology is known as Ethereum, but the native token is Ether, and transactions are paid in gas.

Tokenless blockchains

If cryptocurrencies are built on blockchain, can there be a blockchain without a native token?

Well, yes and no. In recent years, corporations and enterprises have been experimenting with blockchain technology, but the token as a valued asset presents a problem for most organizations and consortiums using it. If they don’t like the cryptocurrency aspect, than what do corporations get out of blockchain? For any institution, the anti-fragile distributed nature is beneficial, along with promises for a more hack-proof environment. Regulators will enjoy the auditability that cryptographic receipts provide–named “triple entry accounting”. That’s great and all, but one of the main benefits of blockchain is as a trust protocol to coordinate possibly untrusting entities. So how can they achieve this without the mining/validation process?

Cryptocurrency can be surprising

Instead of operating in a no-trust environment, companies and consortiums operate with a small amount of trust since they know who each other are. Because full anonymity isn’t necessary, using a public consensus algorithm like proof-of-work is no longer necessary. Consortiums, instead prefer to use a “ring signatures”, which allows them to achieve a majority vote effect–for example 5 of 7. When the minimum threshold of signatures is met, the information is said to be validated and appended to the blockchain like any other. This consensus style allows for most of the properties of blockchains without using a native token. But because validation can be performed only by a limited subset of all participants, this is said to be a “private chain.”

Diving Deeper

For more information about how these two ideas interact, check out our Internet of Value posts. If you want to know more about a specific token and the community that supports it, our list of popular blockchains is a great place to start.