Monthly Archives: January 2012

The cost of coins

It used to be the case that coins used as currency had value because of the material from which they were made: a solid gold coin weighing one ounce had the same value as one ounce of gold. The introduction of fiat currencies, issued by central banks, that only have value because a government decrees by law that they do, allowed governments to move away from this dependence on rare metals.

UK coins come in four “flavours”: the “copper” 1p and 2p coins, the “silver” 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p coins and the larger and heavier £1 and two-tone £2 coins. Before 1992 the “copper” 1p and 2p coins really did contain copper, being made from a bronze containing 97% copper, 2.5% zinc and 0.5% tin. With a mass of 3.56 and 7.12 grams respectively the pre-1992 coins contained 3.54 and 6.91 grams of copper; at the current bulk price and the current USD-GBP exchange rate this makes a 1p coin worth 1.66 pence and a 2p coin worth 3.23 pence (those links will take you to automatically calculated values using current values for spot price and exchange rate).

If you were able to buy pre-1992 1p and 2p coins in bulk for their face value you could make a profit by melting them down and selling the resulting copper as scrap (though this is illegal under the 1971 Coinage Act). This increasing price of copper in the early lead to a change from bronze to copper-plated steel and this makes it very easy to differentiate between the old and new 1p/2p coins: pre-1992 coins are not magnetic and post-1992 coins are.

The “silver” coins have previously been made from cupro-nickel, an alloy of copper and nickel in a 75:25 ratio. In terms of its raw metal, a 3.25 gram five pence coin, containing 2.44 grams of copper and 0.81 grams of nickel is currently worth 3.08 pence (1.14p for the copper and 1.94p for the nickel). A 6½ gram ten pence coin is worth 6.16p, a five gram twenty pence coin is worth 4.74p and an eight gram fifty pence coin is worth 7.58p.

From January 2012 the “silver” coins will be made from nickel-plated steel (making them magnetic), a change driven probably by the rising cost of both copper and nickel. (In May 2007, when the price of nickel was at a peak, a five pence coin was worth more than six pence as scrap copper and nickel).

The high value of the £1 coin (current value), composed of 70% copper, 24.5% zinc, and 5.5% nickel and the £2 coin, with a cupro-nickel core surrounded by a ring of 76% copper, 20% zinc, and 4% nickel, makes them unlikely to ever approach a situation in which they are worth more than their face value.

Technetium-99m generators

Technetium-99m is a radioactive tracer that is used in twenty million medical diagnostic procedures per year. At least 31 radiopharmaceuticals based on Tc-99m are used for imaging and studying organs such as the brain, heart muscle, thyroid, lungs, liver, gallbladder and kidneys, as well as the skeleton and blood and for the investigation of tumours.

The ‘m’ in the name of technetium-99m indicates that it is metastable. Tc-99m is radioactive because one or more of the protons and neutrons in its nucleus is in an excited state. Tc-99m decays into Tc-99 with a half-life of six hours and this makes it particularly well suited to use in the body: after one day (four half-lives) only 6.3% of the initial Tc-99m remains. (It’s worth noting that the non-metastable technetium-99 is also radioactive, but with a half-life of 211000 years, it presents a very low risk.)

This short half-life also creates a problem: obtaining Tc-99m when required. Hospitals cannot run their own nuclear reactors and so they rely on technetium generators – machines that produce Tc-99m from the decay of its parent isotope molybdenum-99. Molybdenum-99 has a longer half-life (66 hours) and can therefore be transported to hospitals and still remain useful for up to a week.

Molybdenum-99 is produced in nuclear reactors by bombarding a highly enriched uranium target with neutrons, causing it to fission, forming Mo-99 (and many other isotopes) as it does. The vast majority of Mo-99 is produced by five nuclear reactors around the world that are specifically devoted to the production of nuclear isotopes for medicine: NRU in Canada, BR2 in Belgium, SAFARI-1 in South Africa, HFR Petten in the Netherlands and OSIRIS-1 in France.* Temporary shutdowns of NRU and HFR Petten in the 2000s led to a long-term shortage of Mo-99.

Once Mo-99 has been produced it is placed into a technetium generator and these generators are transported to hospitals. The technetium generators make use of the fact that molybdenum likes to bond with aluminium oxide (alumina) but technetium does not. The generators are “milked” by drawing a saline solution across an inner molybdenum/alumina capsule; during this elution process any technetium that has formed will be drawn away with the saline and can then be used in tests.

A cutaway model of a technetium generator.

The molybdenum/alumina sample is placed in the centre of the device, surrounded by shielding (painted red in this case). Saline is injected through one of the tubes at the top of the device and flows into a shielded container through the other tube, after having passed over the sample and “picked up” radioactive technetium-99m.

* Mo-99 is also produced in much smaller amounts from low-enriched uranium at the OPAL reactor in Australia and at other sites.

Plug wiring colour scheme

UK plugs use brown insulation for the live wire, blue insulation for the neutral wire and green with yellow stripes insulation for the earth wire.

But why this particular combination of colours? The answer is deceptively simple: there is no type of colour blindness that will result in these wires becoming confused.

Above: how a UK plug looks to someone who is red-green colourblind.

Above: how a UK plug looks to someone who is blue-yellow colourblind.

One of the lesser-known safety features of a UK plug is the extra distance that the neutral wire has to travel when compared to the live wire. If someone pulls on the mains cable the live wire will disconnect first, making the plug safer.

Under the IEC 60446 standard only black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, grey, white, pink and turquoise are acceptable colours for labelling wires. Countries must choose an appropriate selection of colours that eliminates the possibility of confusion.

IEC 60446 colours. From top to bottom: normal vision, deuteranopic vision, tritanopic vision.

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Night vision

The vision of human beings is well-adapted to daylight; the human eye has evolved to see in the range of wavelengths that are brightest in the spectrum of light that the Sun emits.

The intensity of the light the Sun emits by wavelength, with the visible region highlighted.

But humans don’t see particularly well in the dark. The cones that are responsible for colour vision don’t function well at low light intensities, which is why night vision is almost entirely monochromatic – in the dark humans see in black and white.

When moving from bright light into darkness the first thing that happens to the eye is that the pupil dilates to allow in more light. The iris dilator muscle causes the pupil to increase in diameter by a factor of five (from 2 mm to 10 mm), increasing the amount of light entering the eye by about twenty-five (52) times, but this isn’t enough for true night vision.

The chemical rhodopsin that is present in the rod (brightness-sensing) cells is responsible for night vision. When exposed to light, rhodopsin immediately (within 200 femtoseconds*) splits to form a chemical called photorhodopsin, and then soon afterwards (within a few picoseconds) another chemical called bathorhodopsin.

The splitting of rhodopsin is accompanied by the formation of other chemicals called retinals, and during this splitting process a signal is sent down the optic nerve to the brain, registering the detection of light. (Retinal is created from vitamin A, and so people with a diet lacking in vitamin A frequently suffer from night blindness.)

A molecule of rhodopsin (rainbow-coloured) embedded in a lipid bilayer.
A (black) retinal molecule is bound within the rhodopsin.

Over time, and at a consistent rate, the opsins and retinals recombine to form rhodopsin. If the eye is exposed to bright light all the rhodopsin splits at once (a process called photobleaching). When subsequently exposed to darkness there is therefore no rhodopsin to split and the eye cannot detect light properly. The person in question must wait for the rhodopsin to naturally recombine over time before proper vision can return, a process that takes between ten and thirty minutes to occur. When fully accustomed to the dark, the eye is between ten thousand and a million times more sensitive to light than previously.

The rhodopsin in human eyes is less-sensitive to red light than to other colours and therefore night vision is not particularly effected by red light. This is why red light is used in darkrooms and in aircraft before night-time parachute jumps.

Human eyes, unlike the eyes of many animals, do not have the tapetum lucidum which gives those animals superior night vision. The tapetum lucidum sits behind the retina and acts like a mirror, reflecting back photons of light that were not initially absorbed by the retina, giving the retina a “second chance” to detect the light. This improves their night vision and is what gives rise to the phenomenon of “eyeshine” often seen when taking photographs of animals.

The tapetum lucidum seen in a dissected calf’s eye.

“Eyeshine” is very obvious in this photograph of a raccoon.

* Interestingly, the splitting of rhodopsin into photorhodopsin and retinal seems to be the fastest chemical reaction that has been directly studied.