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Blockchain technology is moving into the financial mainstream with IBM and seven European banks

IBM is building blockchain technology that will be used by seven of Europe's largest banks, including HSBC and Rabobank, to facilitate international trade for small and medium-size enterprises, the company said on Tuesday.

The project will mark one of the first real-world use cases of blockchain technology in financial institutions. The potential of blockchain has been praised by the banking industry over the past couple of years, but the first real applications are beginning.

Blockchainis ageneral term for a distributed digital ledger that can record transactions and is tamper-proof. It's the underlying technology that makes cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and Ethereum possible, but it has also been talked up by banks as a way to streamline processes and make them more efficient and cheaper.

IBM is building this new blockchain, Digital Trade Chain, to help parties track, manage and transact internationally.

When a merchant sells goods to another party and those goods arrive, the blockchain triggers a payment to take place, explained Wiebe Draijer, chairman of the executive board at Rabobank, one of the participating banks.

"We take care of the payment that's still the old payment technology," Draijer told CNBC in a TV interview on Monday, "but the whole infrastructure, the administration is done on the blockchain. And ultimately we will also move the payment into that blockchain solution, when the payment in blockchain is ready to be robust for large-scale application."

Seven banks — Deutsche Bank, HSBC, KBC, Natixis, Rabobank, Societe Generale and Unicredit — are part of the consortium.

IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty delivers a keynote address at CES 2016 at The Venetian Las Vegas on January 6, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images
IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty delivers a keynote address at CES 2016 at The Venetian Las Vegas on January 6, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The tech solution will be built on Hyperledger Fabric, an open source blockchain framework, and will go live by the end of the year.

"There are many many tests and every bank and every fintech is experimenting with use cases of blockchain. We are moving a step further with seven banks, putting together an application based on blockchain where we facilitate small-and-medium-sized enterprises when they export. And the blockchain technology is very powerful and supports that proposition," Draijer said.

Many banks have so far done one-off trials with blockchain technology. For example, Wells Fargo and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia used blockchain last year to process and execute a shipment of cotton from the U.S. to China. And Barclays trialed derivatives trading using blockchain technology.

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