Pennies, Copper and an Earthquake

Have you seen the new 2010 Lincoln shield pennies?

They are available, but not widely in distribution yet. Keep an eye on your pocket change for any bright, shiny pennies.

This year’s shield design recognizes the difficulties and the strengths of keeping the union together. Thirteen bars on the shield represent the states whereas the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” means “out of many, one.”

This year’s shield penny along with last year’s four pennies commemorating Lincoln contain 2.5%  copper (Cu) coating the majority metal, zinc (Zn). These metallic proporations apply to pennies intended for circulation.

For the special 2009 bicentennial commemoration of Lincoln, the US Mint presented proof sets of the four pennies with the same metal content as the 1909 versions: 95% copper with the remaining 5% tin and zinc.

Let’s do some simple math for the copper in the pennies for circulation.

The circulation coin presses can strike between 700 and 850 coins per minute with an average of 750. Let’s see, a penny weighs 2.5 grams. Of that weight, 2.5% is copper or .0625 grams.

At 750 coins per minute, 43.875 grams of copper goes through the press per minute. In an hour, the pennies through the press contain 2812.5 grams of copper equaling 99.2 ounces or 6.2 pounds of the reddish brown metal.

For distribution, instead of small bags of 5000 cents each, the mint fills a large bag (called a ballistic bag) with 400,000 cents weighing 2,206 pounds – more than a ton. Of that weight, using simple math again, those large bags hold 55.15 pounds of copper metal along with the zinc.

Why the interest in copper?

Did you know that Chile, who is prone to and  just experienced a large earthquake, is the largest producer of copper?

Though the copper commodities markets jumped on Monday due to the fear Chile’s copper production would be adversely impacted, the prices settled down again on news that the copper production experienced only minor interuption.

Back to the copper math, at 24 hours per day, five days per week, the two main circulation mints, Philadelphia and Denver, use 1488 pounds of copper per penny press. Of course, this calculation is simple math and does not represent actual production.

That’s a lot of copper, and considering a penny already costs more than a penny to make, any commodities increases can impact the US Mint’s budget for the penny coins.

Have you ever heard the saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, a storm forms in North America?” That saying seems nonsensical.

On the other hand, South American occurrences, such as an earthquake in Chile, can have an impact in North America that you don’t normally think could be related.

Will the US Mint’s production of the new shield pennies be adversely impacted by a fluctuation in copper prices? Probably not, but who knows for sure.