BYU undergraduate makes 'cents' of rare coins

August graduation exercises to begin Thursday

Historically, coin collectors used crude methods of testing the authenticity of coins, such as biting into them, to see if they were really made of genuine gold or silver. For experts, this method has proven to be archaic. Luckily, coin collectors can spare the bite. A Brigham Young University student has demonstrated a way to test counterfeit coins using an X-ray machine.

Physics student Jeff Brown developed the new method of testing the authenticity of collectible coins for his senior thesis by using an X-ray machine and electron microscope. Brown began working on his project two years ago. He is one of 2,513 students who will graduate from BYU this week. Commencement exercises will be held Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Marriott Center.

“The most crucial thing to find out if it’s counterfeit or not, is to find out what it’s made of. You can’t do that by just looking at the coin, you have to be able to get inside of it somehow,” Brown said. “My goal was to be able to do that without having to cut or melt the coin, especially if it turned out to be an authentic coin.”

Using the microscope, Brown was able to examine minute details on about 50 coins dating from 1899 to 1965. Brown said in the past counterfeiters shaved off a coin’s metal to create a new coin; however, today’s counterfeiters manipulate small details that carry a big impact on the price, such as changing a coin’s date or mint mark.

The most valuable coin Brown researched was an 1893 U.S. Morgan Silver dollar. People attempted to counterfeit this coin by stamping an ‘S’ mint mark, which represents its origins from the San Francisco Mint. The 1893 U.S. Morgan Silver dollar without a mint mark and in pristine condition is valued at $700 according to “The Official Red Book Guide to United States Coins.” If the coin was made at the San Francisco Mint, with an original ‘S’ mint mark, the value jumps to $52,500 because only 100,000 of this mint stamped coin were made.

The most accurate way to test a coin’s authenticity is to find what elements are present. Brown uses an X-ray fluorescent spectrometer to help identify the metal makeup. To help stabilize the process, Brown begins by placing a thin strip of titanium on the sample holder because titanium was not present in any of the coins and is a very stable element. He then places a coin with the titanium and closes the top of the X-ray machine to create a vacuumed, air tight atmosphere. The X-ray machine allows him to view several different coins at the same time. A computer translates the elemental makeup of each coin in a graph to a computer. Brown is then able to analyze data from the chart and compare it with information from the U.S. Mint which shows what the original coin’s elemental makeup should be.

“The most important part of this project is what I learned about problem analysis: figuring out how to get past bugs and hiccups,” Brown said. “It’s a lot different than just having to go to class. It really prepares you for graduate school and similar situations that require critical thinking.”

Brown has been accepted to a nuclear engineering graduate program at Idaho State University, but has deferred entrance for one year to accept a computer programming job with an Orem company. His dream job is to teach physics at the collegiate level.

“When I chose to study physics, it was one of the happiest days of my life,” Brown said. “I really like to teach and explain things to people that they don’t understand.”

Writer: Elizabeth Cramer

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