The skyrocketing value of a mineral challenges the world's antiquated reliance on mints, metals, and mines.
photo © by Heinrich Pniok (www.pse-mendelejew.de) , license FAL
As of the start of this month, zinc prices have hit a historic three-year high. That’s the kind of headline that can make eyes glaze over—another story about price fluctuations, construction in the developing world, and mine closures that matter a whole lot to a few people and barely register for the rest. Yet zinc—found in things as common and vital as car tires, sunscreen, and even U.S. nickels and pennies—is a ubiquitous mineral that cannot be easily replaced. As zinc prices skyrocket, it’s not only forcing prices higher on consumer goods, but also squeezing the price of making currency itself, leading the U.S., for the first time in ages, to seriously search for alternatives to our current coinage. But if the history of metal variation in U.S. currency and the nature of the current zinc shortage tells us anything, it’s that simply changing the composition or denominations of our money will no longer be enough.