MoneyScience & Tech

The Science of Making Money (Literally)

Ever wonder where your spare change comes from? Until our fantastical yearnings for money-growing trees bear any fruit, Canadians must continue to rely on the world leader in coin production — the Royal Canadian Mint — to produce all of Canada’s circulation coins. The Mint also produces circulation coins on behalf of other countries and offers services to its Canadian and foreign customers such as gold and silver refining and assaying, as well as secure storage. Additionally, it designs and manufactures precious and base metal collector coins; gold, silver, palladium and platinumbullion coins; medals and medallions; and tokens. As a Crown Corporation of Canada, the Mint’s shares are held in trust for the Crown in right of Canada, serving the public’s interest while sanctioned to operate “in anticipation of profit” (to function in a commercial manner without relying on taxpayer support to fund its operations).

Headquartered in Ottawa, the Mint’s 14,864 m2 state-of-the-art manufacturing plant is located in Winnipeg and has produced over 55 billion coins on behalf of over 75 nations. The Mint’s facilities — equipped with the most advanced coin production technologies — are regarded as one of the most highly-developed minting operations in the world. When it comes to technological innovation, the Royal Canadian Mint has achieved numerous “firsts” including:

  • Patented, cost-saving plated coin technology
  • Patented locking mechanism for high security bi-metallic coinage
  • Patents pending for coloured coin technology, hologram technology and silver and gold refining processes
  • Produced the first 9999 fine gold bullion coin
  • Produced the largest 99999 fine gold coinage

The Mint’s research and development unit is leading in the global minting industry by perfecting two technologies: blank burnishing and blank polishing. Its in-house engineering teams also continue to transcend technological boundaries by identifying new uses for applications, procedures and machines. Recently, the Mint’s revolutionary patented multi-ply plated steel technology has proved to be a more secure and less costly resource, due to the conventional coin’s unstable base metal prices and increasing production costs. Multi-ply plating uses less nickel, copper or bronze than usual methods and is dramatically quicker than single-ply. Nickel plates exhibit tarnish-resistant properties and perform superiorly to cupronickel and ferritic stainless steel. Finally, multi-ply coins have optimum electromagnetic readability to ensure security and prevent vending machine fraud. The Canadian government has saved millions of dollars since 2000 due to the production of multi-ply plated steel, and international customers have also benefited from this advanced technology.

The Science of Making Money (Literally)

The Royal Canadian Mint proudly honoured Canada’s national heroes with a 99.99% pure silver collector coin subscription series (Image Source: Royal Canadian Mint)

Although we handle money on a daily basis, members of the general public tend to take the scrupulously-calculated operations behind coin manufacturing for granted, failing to acknowledge the Mint’s mystifying yet sophisticated and resourceful production processes.  Metal refining, a commonly practiced function of the Mint, employs scientific principles in a process of which most people are unaware. On its website, the Mint elucidates that a mere 5 steps separates ore from purified gold.

Metal Refining in 5 Steps

  1. Pre-melt
    • In a furnace, Doré bars in purities (ranging from 5% to 95%) are melted
    • To determine its purity, dip samples are retrieved from the molten gold
  2. Chlorination
    • The blend of molten metal is infused with chlorine gas
    • b. All of the metals — with the exception of gold — drift toward the surface, forming a molten chloride residue
    • What remains is a 995 fine gold that is then poured into an anode mould
  3. Degolding
    • The molten chloride residue recovered from chlorination is combined with soda ash, reacting to cause the gold particles to settle at the bottom of the crucible in a silver-gold alloy “button”
  4. Electrolysis
    • To refine the gold to 999 purity, the gold anode is submerged in a bath consisting of a solution of hydrochloric acid and gold chloride
    • The anode is exposed to an electric current, causing the anode to dissolve and the dissolved gold to coat a titanium cathode
    • The impurities collect at the bottom of the cell, or alternatively, form soluble chlorides
  5. Final Pour
    • 9999 purified gold is shaped into bars ranging in size or converted into granulation gold

At the Mint’s coin production powerhouse — its Winnipeg facility — speed and precision serve as the driving forces behind the 15 million plated coins that are produced each day. 13,000 blanks are produced per minute as large coiled strips of core steel are fed into a high capacity punch press. The blanks then undergo a process called “deburring” to neaten and smooth the rough edges.  Then, the edges are raised and rounded.  Finally, the rimmed edges are annealed (heated to better receive the strike) and cleaned. 

From there, the steel coin blanks are “electroplated” (coated with nickel and copper plates for protection) using the Mint’s exclusive multi-ply plating technique – the world’s only multi-ply process that can match the electromagnetic signature (the radiated electromagnetic energy that provides a means of recognition and identification) of any traditional alloy coin. This technique has presented an enormous security advantage for the coin-operated vending industry. Once the coins are plated, they are dried, polished and are rigorously sampled to ensure highest quality standards. They are sorted by a cutting-edge inspection camera that carefully scrutinizes up to 180,000 blanks per hour for blistering, colour disparities and surface flaws. At this point, the coins are at last prepared for striking by a high-speed coining press. The final processing stages consist of coin rolling and wrapping, followed by shipment to the Mint’s coin pool sites across the country for distribution to financial institutions.

Don’t be fooled by this intricate series of chemical reactions and mechanical processes; coin production is both a science and an art. Coin design represents an integral component of the production process. 

The Science of Making Money (Literally)

The one-dollar coin introduced in 1990 bears the third portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to appear on Canadian coins. This portrait serves as a significant milestone in the history of Canadian coinage, as it is the first portrait of the reigning monarch to be designed by a Canadian (Image Source: Coins and Canada)

Could you imagine the iconic face of a loonie bearing any other image than the common loon?

The design process of a circulation coin begins with the selection of a theme. While all Canadian coins bear the effigy of the current reigning monarch, the reverse sides feature a distinct design that reflects an event, location or milestone that is nationally significant, memorable and most importantly, reproducible on metal. To assess which themes resonate most with Canadians, the Royal Canadian Mint sometimes conducts public opinion polls. The Mint commissions artists to submit designs once a theme has been selected, equipping the artists with guidelines, such as creative and technical stipulations, coin requirements and specifications and previous examples. Though the services of renowned Canadian artists are traditionally enlisted by the Mint, some of the most distinctive coin designs are the fruits of labour of the Mint’s own staff of talented designers’ and engravers.  Click here to learn about some of the Royal Canadian Mint’s skilled artistic minds.

It is imperative that the design of a coin balances artistic merit and accurate depiction of the subject matter. For example, the initial design for the 2-dollar polar bear coin was closely analyzed by a Mint-commissioned zoologist to ensure the accuracy of the bear’s anatomical structure. From there, the Mint’s production specialists proposed modifications to highlight the design out on the round, metal surface of a coin, such as focusing the design’s details in the coin’s centre, rather than around the rim, and the application of a bold contour line to distinguish the bear from the background.

The Science of Making Money (Literally)

2010 Collector Coins (Image Source: Royal Canadian Mint)

Although recommendations and ideas for new coin designs arise from contests, research and the Canadian general public, the Government of Canada makes the ultimate and final decisions for all coin designs. The minister approves numismatic coins (coins for the specific purpose of study and collection) and the Governor in Council approves circulation coins.

Hand-crafted commemorative coins and metals are specially produced at the Ottawa Mint, an operation that manufactures an average of merely 8,000 collector coins per eight-hour shift (this contrasts the high-volume output of the Winnipeg plant). Each item is handled with the utmost care and is treated as an individual work of art. A precious collector coin is subjected to a much more intensive production process compared to a mass-produced circulation coin.

Do you have spare change collecting dust in jars and drawers? Coins can add up quickly, so coin recycling kiosks provide an accessible and convenient option to count, sort and deposit coins that would otherwise sit in piggy banks and in between couch cushions for eternity. Coin recycling is a cost-effective and environmentally-efficient method to invest change back out to the marketplace, as every coin that is circulated is one less to produce. Recycling helps preserve the environment and reduces emissions caused by smelting and mining. In 2014, PBS NewsHour reported that since distribution of the penny was halted in 2013, the Mint has redeemed 4 billion pennies through coin recycling programs. How much is 4 billion pennies? More than enough pennies to wrap around the Earth’s circumference. Although that number may appear significant, it is relatively little compared to the approximate 31 billion pennies that remained in circulation at that time.

The Science of Making Money (Literally)

The Royal Canadian Mint revealed the winning designs for the Canada 150 circulation coins on November 2, 2016. Wesley Klassen of St. Catharines, Ontario designed the one-dollar coin called Connecting a Nation. All five Canada 150 coins will enter circulation in the spring of 2017.‎ (Image Source: CNW Group/Royal Canadian Mint)

A 4-Litre Pickle Jar Can Contain:

  • 4,992 pennies = $49.92
  • 8,400 dimes = $840.00
  • 3,411 quarters = $852.75

A Mint employee brought in a 4-litre pickle jar of small change that had been accumulating over the years. It contained over $1,000!

Author

The Science of Making Money (Literally)
Jordyn is a recent graduate from the University of Guelph's Biomedical Sciences program, and currently works for Bell Canada Supply Chain.