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The Mighty Polymer Banknotes

Some 8 months after the release of decimal currency in Australia, large numbers of $10 bank notes were found in circulation that had been counterfeited using normal office paper. In total some $140,000 in fake notes were recovered before it was realized that a better solution needed to be found to protect the monetary system against forgery. One would have to scratch ones head and wonder at the chances of the forged note in question being the same as the one that bears the portrait of a convicted forger Francis Howard Greenway.

A portrait of Francis Howard Greenway the convicted forger.
A portrait of Francis Howard Greenway the convicted forger.

Due to the increasing sophistication of techniques used by banknote counterfeiters the original banknote which for hundreds of years has been made from paper using rags as a base needed to be improved upon. The challenge to find a better, more secure medium was taken up by the C.S.I.R.O. in Australia and Note Printing Australia which is a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia. A secondary consideration that caused consternation for some time was the advent of the color photocopier which really created a wave of counterfeiting.  It was many months before government agencies recognized the need to have each and every color photocopier in the country registered and licensed.

Rounding on the CSIRO’s exceptional expertise in the field of polymer and synthetics chemistry they devised a new polymer substrate which was non-fibrous and non-porous. This new substrate also proved to be extremely resilient to tearing and hence offered a much longer life cycle than the original paper based notes. Being non-porous the material was also fairly impervious to moisture, sweat and dirt. Coupled with this they also managed to incorporate into the production process, nanotechnology, spectroscopic techniques and microstructure manipulation, a host of never before seen security features. The insertion of clear windows and also of an OVD (Optically Variable Device) which was created from diffraction gratings enhanced the security even further. These features would reduce the amount counterfeiting in Australia dramatically on their release. The notes were so successful, that to date they have been adopted for national use by 25 other countries, naturally all of them with their own national designs. Features that have been developed in the course of the research are also being looked at for use as security measures against identity theft and the counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals.

Here are some of the remarkable design features to give you some idea of the multiple security features incorporated within the Five Dollar Federation banknote pictured here.

Henry Parkes on the Five Dollars banknote.
2001 Five Dollars Federation banknotes.

The words of Parkes’ Tenterfield speech (Obverse) and ‘Advance Australia Fair’ (Reverse) are reproduced in micro print and can be read with the aid of a magnifying glass.

The clear window contains an embossing of the number ‘5’. Part of this window is mauve colored in appearance.

a snap shot of the digitised 5 in the clear window.
A snap shot of the digitized “5” in the clear window.

A hidden number ‘5’ below the small printed triangle in the bottom right hand corner of the back of the note is revealed when that area of the note is viewed through the mauve colored area of the clear window. To see this better fold the note so that the triangle in the window is on top of, and in direct contact with, the printed triangle. To accentuate the effect, move the triangle in the window around the printed triangle.

When the note is held up to the light, a seven pointed star within a circle is formed by four points on one side of the note combining perfectly with three points on the other side.

Very slightly raised printing can be felt by running your finger or fingernail across the main design elements, such as the portraits, the notes denomination numeral and the word Australia.

Under ultraviolet light on the reverse of the note, the stars of the Southern Cross, the sunburst, the yellow orientation bars at the top and bottom of the note, and the wattle flowers will all fluoresce. There is a spray of wattle leaves and the numeral ‘5’, that are normally not visible, which also become visible under ultraviolet light.

Intricate, multi-coloured, fine-line patterns and images appear on both sides of the note.

The serial number of each note is printed vertically on the reverse side of the note. Under ultraviolet light the serial number is fluorescent.

I could well imagine that trying to copy that lot would be enough to give any forger a severe migraine. Needless to say, these types of security features extend through all the denominations.

Lastly these new wonderful polymer banknotes also have a further surprise in store . They are a great deal more environmentally friendly than the old paper notes. The old paper notes could only be burnt and buried to ensure destruction whereas the polymer notes can be granulated, melted down and formed into pellets. These pellets can then be used as the raw material base for recycling. To date items such as bricks and roof tiles, some forms of plumbing items and even composting bins.

Personally I find them absolutely amazing and I am enthralled by the high tech designs.

Magnificent and best of all Australian.

It was not until February in 1997 that the first $20 counterfeit based on a plastic substrate which closely simulated Australia’s notes appeared in circulation.  These forgeries had reasonable reproduction of the printed areas but the note itself had a distinctly different feel due to the altered thickness and texture of the substrate used.  The digitised embossing was clumsy if non-existent in some areas of the notes.   In summary the notes were relatively easy to spot. World wide forgery of banknotes is trending downwards as more and more countries adopt the polymer  format.

Visit us here at Noteworthy Collectibles to get your run of Federation notes to see these great advances in bank note technology.

You can view a 6 min video here on Youtube on the process of making these notes. Got to love that plastic bubble! What an amazing feat of technology it is.


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