Mint testing copper-plated zinc for 5-cent coin

Experimental pieces use same composition as cent
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Published : 01/24/14
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The United States Mint has been striking experimental Jefferson 5-cent coins in copper-plated zinc.

In efforts to save money by finding suitable alternative compositions for circulating coinage, the U.S. Mint is considering, among its options, changing the 5-cent coin from its current copper-nickel alloy to the same composition as the current Lincoln cent.

At 21.21 millimeters in diameter and 5 grams in weight, the 5-cent coin is larger and heavier than the copper-plated zinc cent. The cent is 19 millimeters in diameter and weighs 2.5 grams.

The experimental copper-plated zinc strikes the Mint has executed at the Philadelphia Mint for the 5-cent coin weigh 4.06 grams and maintain the coin’s current diameter, according to U.S. Mint officials.

U.S. Mint spokesman Michael White said Jan. 23 that the copper-plated zinc planchets for the 5-cent experimental strikes were supplied by Jarden Zinc Products of Greeneville, Tenn.

Jarden is currently the U.S. Mint’s lone vendor for ready-to-strike copper-plated zinc planchets for Lincoln cents.

For the 5-cent coin, a 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel homogenous alloy has been used since the denomination was introduced in 1866, with only one interruption. The only period the copper-nickel alloy was not used was from 1942 to 1945 when nickel was removed and replaced with silver and manganese to alloy with copper.

The wartime alloy was 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese. The wartime 5-cent coins also weighed 5 grams. The .350 fine silver 5-cent coins were struck at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints. The Mint mark from each facility appears on the coin’s reverse in the field above Monticello’s dome.

The Philadelphia Mint wartime 5-cent coin strikes represented the first use of the P Mint mark on a U.S. coin.

The copper-plated zinc planchets for the 5-cent denomination experimental strikes are being struck with what the U.S. Mint refers to as “nonsense dies” to test the alloy. The dies bear an obverse portrait of Martha Washington facing right, and the reverse, a rendition of the Washington home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia. The Mint has used variations of these two designs for decades when testing new compositions for circulating coinage.

Efforts to reduce costs

The Research and Development Team at the Philadelphia Mint has been conducting test strikes using nonferrous and ferrous metals for more than three years in ongoing, congressionally authorized experiments aimed at reducing production and circulation distribution costs for U.S. coinage.

The testing is being conducted under the authority of the Coin Modernization, Oversight, and Continuity Act of 2010, Public Law 111-302, which calls for the Mint to examine the compositions for all circulating coin denominations.

However, the primary focus of research and development efforts has been concentrated on the cent and 5-cent denominations, both of which have cost the Mint more than face value to produce and distribute for eight consecutive fiscal years.

Under terms of Public Law 111-302, signed into law Dec. 14, 2010, the U.S. Mint must submit a report to Congress every two years updating Congress on alternative coin composition research and providing potential recommendations.

The first biennial report was submitted in mid-December 2012, with the next report due in mid-December 2014.

No cost savings likely for cent

Although the first report to Congress by the Mint included details about a possible copper-plated steel alternative for the Lincoln cent, the option offered no cost savings. Deputy U.S. Mint Director Richard A. Peterson has previously stated that currently no known composition alternative for the Lincoln cent would bring the combined production and circulation costs per coin below the face value of one cent.

When Public Law 111-302 was passed, the U.S. Mint was striking five denominations at the Denver and Philadelphia Mints for general circulation — Lincoln cents, Jefferson 5-cent coins, Roosevelt copper-nickel clad dimes, America the Beautiful copper-nickel clad quarter dollars, and manganese-brass clad dollars (Presidential and Native American).

Production of copper-nickel clad Kennedy half dollars in circulation quality has been restricted to numismatic product sales since 2002. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner suspended Presidential dollar production for circulation on Dec. 13, 2011, because of a glut in Federal Reserve Banks and associated storage facilities. That suspension also included Native American dollars for circulation.

Kennedy half dollars, Presidential and Native American dollars are still being struck in circulation quality, but only for numismatic products at prices well above face value. Their costs are addressed under the Mint’s numismatic programs.

Mint officials have studied alternative compositions for U.S. coins on multiple occasions during the 20th and 21st centuries.

As noted, the Mint tested new alloys for the 5-cent coin and compositions for the cents during World War II. The wartime testing led to the aforementioned change to the 5-cent coin, as well as to a zinc-coated steel composition for the cent in 1943.

Rising copper costs in the 1970s led to the testing of many compositions for the cent, many supposedly struck with nonsense dies. Regular Lincoln cent dies were use for two compositions: aluminum for 1974 and 1975 Lincoln cents, and bronze-clad steel for 1974 cents. The price of copper fell before any of those compositional changes were adopted. Examples of 1974 cents in both compositions are in private hands, though it is illegal to own them.

In the early 1980s, the cent composition was changed as noted, to copper-plated zinc.

Fiscal 2013 costs

According to the U.S. Mint’s 2013 Annual Report for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013, the combined production and distribution cost for the Lincoln cent for fiscal 2013 was 1.83 cents, compared with 2 cents in fiscal 2012 and 2.41 cents in fiscal 2011.

Production and distribution for the 5-cent coin cost 9.41 cents for fiscal 2013, 10.09 cents for fiscal 2012 and 11.18 cents for fiscal 2011.

Combined production and distribution costs for the Roosevelt dime during fiscal 2013 were 4.56 cents, compared with 4.99 cents in fiscal 2012 and 5.65 cents in fiscal 2011.

Quarter dollar production and distribution costs were 10.5 cents in fiscal 2013, 11.3 cents in fiscal 2012 and 11.14 cents in fiscal 2011.

The Philadelphia Mint is expected to continue experimental strike production in February. ■

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