The money in your pocket is going to start looking and acting — yes, acting — quite strange in a few years. That's according to a government report, just released, which argues that the only way for the U.S. government to stay ahead of counterfeiters is to use nanotechnology. If this happens, our money will no longer be a printed piece of paper. It will become a very thin, very high-tech machine.
Robert Schafrik sees the result of his work every time he looks at the cash in his wallet.
In 1993, he was in charge of the committee that recommended security changes, like color-shifting ink, a security strip and making the portraits bigger and off-center.
You've probably noticed these changes, which appear to have worked. Counterfeiting is not a big problem in this country. But Schafrik, who led this year's National Research Council study on currency, said that counterfeiting is likely to explode if the U.S. doesn't make some radical changes to our paper bills.
Within five to 10 years, he says, "the software will be so easy to use that anyone will be able to use it, even the casual counterfeiter."
Forget global crime syndicates or foreign pariah states. In a few years, with even the cheapest printer, you'll be able to counterfeit money. The pizza delivery comes, you're short $10. No problem. Scan the $10 bill you do have into a computer, hit print, and you've got a perfect fidelity bill. In short, the United States will not be able to stop counterfeiting by making paper currency more and more intricate. Printers will reproduce any image.
"The future is not going to be in more color, or more finely printed images," says Alan Goldstein, a molecular engineering professor at Alfred University. "The future is going to be in the materials from which the bill, itself, is made."
Goldstein was on Schafrik's committee to deter counterfeiting. He says nanotechnology will save our currency. By manipulating the molecules inside the bill itself, engineers can make currency do amazing things, including change its shape and texture.
"Say you snap a dollar bill between your fingers and the edges become rigid," he says. "And then you pull on them and the edges become normal currency handled every day."
Currency could have dynamic images, too. Squeeze Ben Franklin's face and he might smile or wink or turn purple. Within a decade, Goldstein says, we could use incredibly strong molecules that feel and act like paper, but cannot be cut with scissors.
Then the test becomes easy:
"If you can cut it with a pair of scissors, then it's counterfeit," Goldstein says. "And if you can't, then it's the real deal."
Goldstein says these nanotechnology solutions are not wild fantasies. They're already being used in medicine and defense. Within a decade, they'll be cheap enough to put in currency.
But they won't be too cheap, Goldstein says. The whole point would be to use technology that's too expensive for the home user to duplicate. The report says nanotechnology should keep paper currency safe from rampant counterfeiting for at least another 100 years.