1.4 Cents For Your Thoughts

kopenny.JPGMy stash is rolled up in paper packets. My friend's is in the back of a drawer in his dresser. Interest groups have been tussling for years about whether to rid the U.S. of it completely. Before you jump to conclusions, you should know that I'm talking about pocket change--the penny and nickel specifically. Yesterday, the House debated a bill that could lead to a cheaper reformulation of the penny and the nickel.Why would they want to do that? Well, the metals that make up these coins cost more than they used to, and it now costs more than a penny to make a penny (around 1.4 cents, depending on fluctuating metal values). Same goes for the nickel (one nickel costs about 7 cents to make). The idea under consideration is whether to make pennies, and maybe nickels, out of steel, an iron alloy. Currently, pennies are made mostly from zinc, with a touch of copper plating. Today's nickels contain more copper than nickel. (So technically, my graphic pitting elements against each other isn't accurate, but I can never resist an opportunity to use Microsoft Paint.) It wouldn't be the first time Americans have had steel pennies--they were made during World War II as well. The U.S. has tinkered with the composition of pennies at other times, too. (See here for a history of the U.S. penny's composition over time.) C&ENtral Science blogger Lisa Jarvis shared this information with me--soaring metal prices have had some crime-related ramifications. Bronze, which is what pennies were made of around the 1950s, is worth enough that people have been stealing bronze statues, presumably for scrap metal (see here and here). There's another option besides steel pennies that's been tossed out there--eliminating the penny altogether. Two of the players in that debate: Americans for Common Cents, a self-described "broad-based and informal coalition of charitable organizations, historians, coin collectors, and those involved in penny production." Citizens for Retiring the Penny, founded by Jeff Gore, a UC Berkeley physics Ph.D. and current MIT postdoc. The House bill is probably being cast as something of a compromise, but I don't know what either side thinks of it. Readers, you're welcome to weigh in, of course. How do you think this would affect the prices of metals and metal salts in chemical catalogs, if at all? I'm wondering whether there's some chemistry out there that'll let us give pennies that familiar copper color at a lower cost. Anybody know? Lastly, I have a soft spot for penny chemistry. My very first laboratory experiment in my high school chemistry class was to determine whether there was a difference in the density of pre-1982 pennies and modern pennies. (That goes to show you how little money my school had for science experiments.)

Author: Carmen Drahl

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5 Comments

  1. Pennies are worth less and less every year, it is time to put them out of their misery.

  2. In Canada most of the change except for the $1 and $2 coins are made of steel, and AFAIK they have been for a while. Even then, there is still talk of retiring the penny as it is just a waste of metal.

  3. According to Wikipedia, it looks like a few countries have already removed the one cent (or equivalent) coins from circulation, and not super-recently, either. New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Finland are the countries I read on my first pass. Can anybody vouch for this? Are there “bring back the one cent” groups in those countries?

  4. as a country we can’t even do the logical thing and convert to using metric everywhere… there’s no way we’d make a rational move like getting rid of the expensive metals in pennies or *gasp* get rid of the penny.

  5. Getting rid of pennies would be terrible as I would be forced to offer people a dollar for their thoughts.