Friday, 9 March 2012

Europium protects the currency

You may have heard the expression that nobody counterfeits bad currency.  As it happens, they do.  At the moment the Euro does not quite fit into the category of 'bad currency' in spite of the efforts of some EU countries to make this happen. 

Working in a community of curious physicists, I was intrigued yesterday to hear a story about the steps taken to avoid the counterfeiting of Euro notes.

Apparently, under ultra-violet light, a Euro note will glisten in several different colours, and the precise colours produced can be used to check that the notes are not forged.  Some physicists study light, and they use instruments called spectrometers to break light down into it constituent parts to analyse the type of atoms that are present.  All atoms have characteristic light patterns, called spectra, and with the right type of expertise you can identify them.  This is how astronomers determine the materials in distant stars or indeed in the sun.

Europium used to prevent counterfeiting

In the particular case of the Euro notes, the light is produced by a process called fluorescence.  The energy from ultra-violet light is used to excite the fluorescing atoms, and then for a short time the atoms radiate their energy again, but at different colours.  Some atoms fluoresce for only a short time and others for much longer.

The rather beautiful finding that surprised me yesterday was that Euro notes use an element called Europium in a special (and undetermined) formulation.  There is something rather poetic about this isn't there? 

I only hope that USA does not follow the same poetry for American dollar bills.  Unlike the two stable isotopes of Europium (with masses 151 and 153), all the isotopes of Americium are radioactive and it is not a material that you would want to have in your pocket.

Small note: It has been suggested that it might be illegal to investigate the sources of the other colours in too much detail!  Genuine scientific curiosity could be misinterpreted as conspiracy!


Andreas said...

Very cool indeed, though I think the article could use with an ever so slight spell check...

Plasma Engineer said...

Thanks Andreas. I must admit that I wrote it in a bit of a hurry. I did actually use the blogger spell checker at the time and was surprised that it picked up nothing. Anyway, I fixed four errors - hopefully that is all. Glad to have the feedback thank you.