Atomic Swaps and HTLCs

Atomic swaps are a method of exchanging one asset for another, such as two cryptocurrencies, even if they exist on distinct blockchains. The idea is to do this in a trustless way, avoiding counterparty risk, so that the swap either goes ahead and both parties receive what was agreed, or the whole thing is cancelled. It should not be possible for one ‘leg’ of the exchange to go through on its own without the corresponding payment. So, we can treat the entire exchange as a single trade which either goes through or not. As separate blockchains exist in isolation, and cannot directly communicate, atomic swaps are a useful cross-chain solution. They help to build a more interoperable ecosystem of interacting blockchains. Furthermore, atomic swaps can also be used with off-chain payments such as on the lightning network, connecting these with on-chain transactions.

If Alice hands over her bitcoin first, can she trust Bob to give her the ether?

Consider the scenario: Alice owns bitcoin, which she wants to use to purchase ether from Bob. The exchange rate (BTCETH) at the time is about 13. So, they agree to a swap where she sends one bitcoin to Bob and, in return, he sends 13 ether to Alice’s Ethereum account address.

This is fine in theory but, before sending her payment transaction to the Bitcoin blockchain, she has second thoughts. What happens if Bob does not submit his corresponding transaction? In that case, she will have sent him the bitcoin with nothing in return. Can he really be trusted? So, she asks Bob to submit his transaction first. However, Bob is also not really sure that he can trust Alice. If he submits his Ethereum transaction before Alice’s payment is confirmed, how can he be sure that he will be paid? To be safe, both parties in this transaction want the other to confirm their payment first. Consequently, they do not go ahead with the exchange.

What can be done to resolve the issue of trust and counterparty risk? This is not something specific to cryptocurrencies. Whenever two parties want to exchange any items of value, there is the possibility that one of them will not follow through with their side of the agreement. Here are three possible solutions. Continue reading “Atomic Swaps and HTLCs”