The United States Mint began producing trial strikes in December at
the Philadelphia Mint using nonsense dies to test potential
compositional replacements for current circulating coinage alloys.
The test strikes were produced as part of a two-year research
study seeking alternative metals to reduce production costs.
Additional trial strikes are scheduled to be conducted in February
or March at the Philadelphia Mint, according to Tom Jurkowsky,
director of the U.S. Mint’s Office of Public Affairs.
Jurkowsky did not disclose what possible composition alternatives
are being studied, only to say that many of the alternatives being
looked at as viable candidates are currently in use in other countries
The Mint has been battling the rising costs of copper, zinc and
nickel that for the past five years have kept the combined metal
acquisition, production and shipping costs for the cent and 5-cent
coin above face value for each coin. The U.S. Mint’s recently released
annual report for Fiscal Year 2011 noted that the cost to produce the
copper-plated Lincoln cent is 2.41 cents, while that for the
copper-nickel Jefferson 5-cent coin is 11.18 cents.
The alternative metals study, examining all circulating coin
denominations is being conducted under provisions of the Coin
Modernization, Oversight and Continuity Act of 2010, signed into law
by President Obama on Dec. 14, 2010. The act not only gives the Mint
authority to examine new compositions for the cent and 5-cent coin, it
also extends the alternative metals study to encompass all circulating
“We are using recently created enhanced Martha Washington nonsense
dies with images that more closely resemble current coinage in order
to obtain the most realistic testing and support evaluation,”
Jurkowsky said. “The nonsense pieces struck will be analyzed and
tested as part of the study.”
The images on the dies were digitally created. U.S. Mint officials
declined to provide images of the obverse and reverse of the nonsense
dies nor any trial strikes produced from them. In past test strikings
over recent decades, the Mint has used various renditions of a
portrait of Martha Washington on the obverse and the Washington home
at Mount Vernon to produce the experimental pieces.
Jurkowsky said multiple metallic alternatives were used for the
December trial strikes. Jurkowsky did not disclose the compositions of
any of the alloys that were tested.
“At this point, it is premature to provide details about the
alternatives that were tested,” Jurkowsky said. “In general, we plan
several phases of testing. First is an initial coinability test to
answer the question whether the material makes a suitable coin (proper
image, wear, EM [electromagnetic] signature, etc.). This will be
followed by more extensive test strikes for likely candidates.
“Eventually, we plan larger scale stamping runs on identified
candidates to prepare for potential production.”
Although not a specific part of the Alternative Metals study that
provides the authority to produce the test strikes, the U.S. Mint has
also studied various die steels and continues to do so in support of
improving costs and extending die life, Jurkowsky said.
If warranted, the Mint would consider die steel changes to
accommodate the alternative metallic materials identified, Jurkowsky said.
The alternative metals study is being coordinated with the Mint by
Concurrent Technologies Corp., under a $1.5 million contract awarded
to CTC on Aug. 24, 2011. The contract runs through June 30, 2013.
According to the CTC website, CTC is an independent, nonprofit,
applied scientific research and development professional services
organization providing innovative management and technology-based
solutions to government and industry.
The alternative metals research and development is being overseen
by CTC’s chief scientist, Dr. Joseph Pickens. CTC has coordinated with
an undisclosed number of suppliers for submission of sample metallic materials.
In its recommendations to the United States Mint, CTC, according
to Pickens, will address various factors, such as the effect of new
metallic coinage materials on the current suppliers of coinage
materials; the acceptability of new metallic materials; costs of
metallic material, fabrication, minting and distribution; metallic
material availability and sources of raw metals; coinability;
durability; effect on sorting, handling, packaging and vending
machines; appearance; risks to the environment or public safety;
resistance to counterfeiting; and commercial and public acceptance.
“This is a great opportunity for CTC to implement our materials
expertise, currently used to solve Department of Defense problems, in
an entirely new area,” Pickens said.
Current compositions, vendors
These are the current compositions for circulating U.S. coins:
➤ Lincoln cent: copper-plated zinc (99.2 percent zinc, 0.8 percent
copper planchet plated with pure copper).
➤ Jefferson 5-cent coin: homogenous alloy of 75 percent copper, 25
➤ Roosevelt dime: outer layers of 75 percent copper, 25 percent
nickel, bonded to a core of pure copper.
➤ America the Beautiful quarter dollar: same composition as
➤ Kennedy half dollars: struck in the same composition as the dime
and half dollar; half dollars have been struck for numismatic sales
only since 2002, with none placed into general circulation.
➤ Golden dollars, representing both the Presidential and Native
American dollar series: manganese-brass clad, composed of outer layers
of 77 percent copper, 12 percent zinc and 7 percent nickel, bonded to
a core of pure copper.
Currently, the U.S. Mint obtains ready-to-strike finished
planchets with raised upset rims from Jarden Zinc Products in
Greeneville, Tenn., to strike Lincoln cents.
The remaining denominations are struck from blanks punched out of
coiled coinage strip. The Mint currently enlists the services of two
coinage strip providers — Olin Brass in East Alton, Ill., and PMX
Industries in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. PMX is an American subsidiary of
Poongsan Corp., the world’s largest manufacturer of coinage blanks,
based in Seoul, South Korea.
The Mint produces its own planchets from the strip provided by the