Table of Contents

The Color of Money:
Using Magnetic Media
Detection to Identify

Magnetic sensing systems are good at identifying counterfeit currency and other negotiable documents. System accuracy depends on using small, sensitive magnetic sensing devices—such as giant magnetoresistive sensors.

Carl H. Smith and Robert W. Schneider, NVE Corp.


Originally fortuitous, the inclusion of magnetic particles in inks is now carefully controlled in some countries. Why? Because the use of iron oxide as a pigment in black ink has provided a way of reading and validating currency and other negotiable documents. Additional magnetic features are being added to currency as PCs and excellent-quality color printers move counterfeiting from the realm of the skilled engraver to that of the high school student.

The magnetic fields from these particles are smaller than Earth’s magnetic field (in contrast to the fields from stripes on credit cards, which are considerably larger than Earth’s field). The small fields from these particles, however, produce signatures that, when read by magnetic sensors, can be used to identify the denominations of currency presented to point-of-sale devices, such as vending and change machines.

To construct a magnetic sensing system that can reliably meet the requirements of typical currency identification applications, you must follow good practices to manage circuit noise and magnetic biasing. Sensitive giant magnetoresistive (GMR) sensors are particularly useful in handling these elements for systems that identify currency and checks.

Typical Magnetic Media Detection Applications
The signature of additional magnetic information encoded in many countries’ currencies can be used to distinguish valid currency from counterfeit copies. Inductive recording heads pressed against the bills are often used in this application. The magnetic fields are <0.1 Oe (8 A/m) at the surface of the bill, but they decrease rapidly as you move the bill away from the sensor. Noncontact magnetic sensors make it possible to avoid bills jamming in the pathway of the detecting device. GMR sensors have obtained signatures from bills 6 mm away. The greater the sensor-to-bill distance, the larger the minimum feature size required for detection.

Another application in which small magnetic fields are detected is the reading of magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) numbers. The stylized MICR numbers produce a unique magnetic signature when documents in which they appear (e.g., checks) are sorted at high speeds. An example of the output from a low-field GMR bridge sensor (i.e., a NVE AA002-02) suitable for this application is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The output from a low-field giant magnetoresistive sensor (NVE AA002-02) shows high sensitivity with both positive and negative fields (4 mV/V/Oe to 40 mV/Oe with 10 V excitation). The hysteresis shown is observed only during a full bipolar sweep of the applied field. The hysteresis for small excursions of the applied field is much smaller.

Dealing with Noise
The ultimate low-field limit on any magnetic sensing system is noise. If the SNR is <1, obtaining a meaningful measurement is difficult. Noise can be divided into two categories: inherent and transmitted. Once you understand these types of noise and their sources, you can use any of several methods to improve the SNR.

Inherent Noise. The sensor and the sensing system, like all current-carrying conductors, produce inherent noise. Inherent noise can include such things as sensor and amplifier offset, thermal noise, and 1/f noise.

Thermal noise is associated with random thermal motions at an atomic level. Because the noise is uniform with frequency, the noise voltage in a given bandwidth is proportional to the square root of the resistance, temperature, and bandwidth. To minimize thermal noise, you can limit the bandwidth to the frequencies of the magnetic signal of interest and use small resistors. The resistance of the sensing resistor itself may be constrained by power and amplification considerations.

Resulting from point-to-point fluctuations of the current in the conductor, 1/f noise increases at low frequency and often dominates below 100 Hz. At the lowest frequencies, it’s not easily distinguishable from drift. Whereas thermal noise is independent of current and exists even without current, 1/f noise grows as current increases. Bandwidth limitation, especially on the low-frequency end, will reduce 1/f noise. As with any random noise source, averaging a repetitive signal will increase the SNR by the square root of the number of signals averaged.

Transmitted Noise. Sources of this type of noise include any voltages picked up by the circuit and any magnetic signals picked up by the sensor that are not part of the desired magnetic signature. Any time-varying magnetic field will not only produce a signal in the magnetic sensor but will also induce a voltage in any circuit loop. To minimize the inductive pickup, you must follow good circuit practices, such as minimizing potential circuit loops and placing amplification as close to the sensor as possible.

You can usually find stray 50–60 Hz magnetic fields in any industrial location. The increasing use of computers and other equip.ment with rectifier-fed capacitor-input power supplies results in nonsinusoidal currents that produce magnetic fields at harmonics of 50–60 Hz. Any moving or rotating magnetic material in equipment produces a time-varying magnetic field at frequencies characteristic of its rotational period. Transmitted magnetic noise sources are best minimized by filtering and by using magnetic shielding.

Instrumentation amplifiers are a good choice for use with low-field GMR sensors. When combined with an operational amplifier, you can easily achieve gains of several thousand. And you can incorporate into the circuit high-pass and low-pass filters formed from passive components to limit noise and to avoid saturation of the amplifiers by any offset or by DC magnetic signals, such as the Earth’s magnetic field. If 50/60 Hz noise is large enough to cause difficulties, a notch filter can be added.

Small effects (e.g., the magnetization of electrical components) can cause additional offsets when using high gain. Most surface-mount resistors have ferromagnetic nickel plating on their ends, and most battery casings are ferromagnetic. When in doubt, try picking up the component in question with a permanent magnet.

The Art of Magnetic Biasing
Magnetic biasing is important in low-field sensing. Most ferromagnetic materials will not have a reliable, readable signature unless magnetized by the magnetic field of a permanent magnet or a coil. The art of biasing is in magnetizing the object to be detected so that it produces a magnetic field along the sensitive axis of the sensor while not saturating the sensor with the biasing field.

The simplest way of biasing is to pass the object to be magnetized over a permanent magnet and then transport it to the vicinity of the sensor. This works well in currency detection and reading MICR numbers on checks. The articles to be read are moved by a transport mechanism and passed over the magnetic sensor one at a time. A permanent magnet must be placed at some point upstream remote enough not to saturate the magnetic sensor. The bills or checks will then have their particles in a reproducible magnetic state when they reach the magnetic sensor.

Figure 2 shows the results of a magnetic trace from right to left across the right half of a new U.S. $20 bill.

Figure 2. The magnetic signature along the center of the right half of a new-style U.S. $20 bill is recorded from the amplified and filtered output of a GMR sensor. Vertical portions of the letters in the word TWENTY cause closely spaced multiple peaks to the left of center.

The upright sections of the letters in the word TWENTY cause the multiple peaks in the center. The border surrounding the portrait causes the large peak on the right, and the frame surrounding the bill, the peak on the left.

The small size of GMR sensors offers the possibility of making closely spaced arrays of sensors to image a larger area rather than just obtaining a signature from a single trace along or across the material, as shown in Figure 2. Magnetic sensor arrays are used to achieve a magnetic image, which can then be used to obtain additional information encoded in the document or object (e.g., currency denomination).

The use of advanced magnetic coding is a recent innovation necessitated by the increasingly sophisticated methodologies available to compromise optically based scanning systems. This use of magnetic encoding was coupled with the development of high-density magnetic readers (e.g., computer hard disk read heads). The ability to develop higher density and higher sensitivity devices promises to accelerate the use of magnetically encoded information in a variety of instruments.

Carl H. Smith is Senior Physicist and Robert W. Schneider is Director of Marketing at NVE Corp., 11409 Valley View Rd., Eden Prairie, MN 55344; 952-829-9217, fax 952-996-1600, lowfields@nve.com.

For further reading on this and related topics, see these Sensors articles.

"New Directions in Eddy Current Sensing," June 2001
"Magnetic Biosensors," December 1999
"Low Magnetic Field Sensing with GMR Sensors, Part 1 and Part 2," September and October 1999

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