RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And as the government fiddles with stamps, it's also tinkering with paper money.
A new government report argues the only way for the U.S. to stay ahead of counterfeiters is to use nanotechnology. That means paper notes may no longer simply be of printed pieces of paper. They could become very thin, very high-tech machines.
NPR's Adam Davidson reports.
ADAM DAVIDSON: Robert Schafrik sees the results of his work every time he looks at the cash in his wallet.
Mr. ROBERT SCHAFRIK (Chairman, National Research Council Report on Currency): Well, I had the front face of a hundred, as it turns out.
DAVIDSON: Oh, you carry a $100 bill around?
Mr. SCHAFRIK: Well, you know, I don't like a fat wallet.
DAVIDSON: In 1993, Schafrik was in charge of the committee that came up with a lot of the changes we've seen in U.S. currency in the last few years. The portraits on our bills, for example, are now bigger and off center. There's a small security strip.
Mr. SCHAFRIK: Another new feature was the color-shifting ink.
DAVIDSON: You've probably noticed these changes. They work great. Counterfeiting is not a big problem in the U.S. But Schafrik chaired this year's National Research Council Report on Currency and learned that counterfeiting will explode - and soon, he says - if the U.S. doesn't make some radical changes to our paper bills.
How much time do we have?
Mr. SCHAFRIK: Well, on the order of five to 10 years, you know, as best you can look into the crystal ball.
DAVIDSON: What happens in five to 10 years?
Mr. SCHAFRIK: The software will - to perfect the image, you know, would be so easy to use that anybody would be able to use it, even the so-called casual counterfeiter.
DAVIDSON: 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 bucks, no problem. Scan the 10 you do have into your computer, hit print, and you've got a perfect copy. In short, the U.S. will not be able to stop counterfeiting by making paper currency more and more intricate. Printers will reproduce any image.
Professor ALAN GOLDSTEIN (Molecular Engineering, Alfred University): The future's not going to be in more color or, you know, more finely printed images. The future's going to be in the material from which the bill itself is made.
DAVIDSON: Alan Goldstein is a molecular engineering professor at Alfred University. He was on Schafrik's committee to deter counterfeiting. He says nanotechnology will save our currency. By manipulating the molecules inside the bill itself, we can make currency do amazing things like change its shape or texture.
Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Say you snap a dollar bill between your finger, and suddenly it just become rigid. And then you pull on in it again and the edges go back to feeling like the normal currency paper that we handle every day.
DAVIDSON: We could put dynamic images inside our currency: squeeze Ben Franklin's face and he smiles or winks or turns purple. Within a decade, Goldstein says, we could use incredibly strong molecules that feel and act like paper but cannot be cut with scissors.
Mr. GOLDSTEIN: So if you can cut it with a pair of scissors, it's counterfeit. And if you can't, then it's the real deal.
DAVIDSON: 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 is to use technology that's too expensive for the home user to duplicate. The report says nanotechnology should keep paper currencies safe from rampant counterfeiting for at least another hundred years.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.
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