Experts estimate that there are around ten million euro-coin fakes in circulation in the three highest denominations. This may seem to be a relatively low figure compared to the 16 thousand million genuine 50‑cent and one- and two-euro coins. Yet for forgers it is a lucrative business: manufacturing a coin costs about 20 cents (most of which goes on the raw materials), so they can make money - literally - on any coin with a face value of 50 cent or more. About three quarters of all counterfeit coins are two euros, with forgers displaying a strong preference for producing what appear to be German coins.
The bigger the eurozone becomes, the more counterfeit that surfaces. Over 330 million people are now potentially exposed to such forgeries. Until 2007 the number of confiscated fakes also grew steadily, reaching over 200 000 per year. But forgers in turn are getting more skilful, so their output is becoming more sophisticated and difficult to detect. Moreover, it is increasingly rare to uncover an entire production unit. "The latest figures clearly show that most workshops are still in operation," the European Commission found in 2007.
The EU Commission has taken measures to address this issue under the "Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development" (FP7), with a focus on making the metals and alloys used even harder to copy. This ties in with the stated aim of Algirdas Šemeta, EU Commissioner responsible for Anti-Fraud: "The fight against counterfeit money - whether coins or notes - is extremely important for both our economy and our currency. We will continue to dedicate all necessary resources to finding these fakes, in an effort to stamp out the problem across the EU".
SAFEMETAL is a project that looks at how to keep the quality of metals used as consistent as possible. To date it has received research funding of about EUR 1.8m from the EU Commission under FP7, a programme which runs from 2007 to 2013. Part of the development work was done by Mart Min, Professor at the Technical University of Tallinn, who made an interesting discovery and filed a patent application for the resulting invention in 1999. He filed subsequent successful patent applications in 2000 and 2004, and has now been nominated for this year's European Inventor Award, which will be presented on 19 May in Budapest. This award recognises the importance of inventors' contribution. In the words of EPO President Benoît Battistelli: "With their talent for innovation, Europe's inventors benefit society as a whole".
Mins' work on the SAFEMETAL project is concentrating on how to make automatic coin validation more reliable. One of the technological challenges is that euro coins are produced in many different countries and in vast quantities with the result that unstamped coins from different suppliers and of varying compositions are used. To assure the quality of the metals and unstamped coins in the face of these differences, Min uses a type of impedance spectroscopy which he has refined and to which he has added new, smart signals and a function for analysing the readings.
One of the aims of FP7, and by extension of SAFEMETAL, is to boost innovation in Europe and the development of new technology-based products and markets. The EU's 23 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for 99% of all companies in Europe, generate over two-thirds of European GDP and provide 75m jobs in private industry. This makes them a key factor in economic growth and employment.
SMEs in particular have specialised in products for coin validation and money sorting systems, and the latest European standards will present them with some challenges. At the same time, patents make this a profitable niche market and an area that provides excellent product opportunities. The technologies developed for this field also have other high-tech applications such as in aviation and space travel, and have already contributed to savings in production and test times in these industries.
Min set out originally to develop smarter pacemakers. He hoped that his work on electrical impedance would allow him to develop better devices to measure patients' workload and automatically adjust their heartbeat; ones that would emit impulses faster when the patient's workload was greater, but would keep the pulse low when the patient was at rest. The first step in the process was to develop a new way of measuring what is known as bioimpedance.
Having successfully designed rate-responsive pacemakers, he looked for other applications for his invention. Min puts it like this: "By measuring impedance over a short period and across a broad spectrum, we discovered a completely new way of measuring that offers not only more data than conventional methods but also much more precise data". This new measurement technique could, in principle, be applied to all kinds of material, for example to assess the viability of organs for transplant and to monitor their functioning after the operation. "We are now discovering possible irregularities with freshly transplanted organs very early on", says the inventor, "because impedance tells us about the blood flow in the transplanted organ".
His method also shows promise as a way of checking charge levels in batteries, both standard and rechargeable. This could soon help to improve their performance and lifespan in mobile phones, medical devices and satellites.
Recently his process has been tested for its suitability in the online monitoring of the structure of windmill blades under a EUREKA Eurostars project. The widespread applicability of his invention and developments makes them what can be described as radically novel.