Can you save taxpayers money by printing money? This isn’t a question of inflation vs. recession, but one of the many questions that the Bank of Canada considers whenever a sheet of bills comes off the press – how much does it cost to print those things?

It turns out, a $20 note from the existing series costs around 10 cents to produce and lasts almost four years before it becomes faded and ripped enough to be yanked from circulation. The Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, is at MaRS today to release a new $100 bill into circulation that reworks this equation in the taxpayer’s favour.

celebration of Canadian innovation

Made of polymer, each note in the new series designed by the Bank costs 19 cents to produce, but will last in circulation at least 2.5 times longer than the current paperbills.  “This saves the taxpayers money over the life of the series,” says Gerry Gaetz, Chief, Banking Operations at the Bank of Canada.

While the $20 bill doesn’t get its grand release until late 2012, starting at 1:00 pm on November 14 you can watch live as Governor Carney launches the new $100 bill into circulation. Starting with the $100 makes sense because there are fewer of them out there – 290 million compared to the 840 million $20s, for example. This gives businesses a chance to familiarize themselves with the new polymer notes before the higher volume $20s come out in 2012.

I have to admit, the new note feels very different than a traditional paper bill, sort of like a smooth ribbon of polymer (yes, for a brief, shining moment last week I was a “hundredaire”). The design is impressive too. It’s supposed to be un-rippable, but I was too nervous to give it a good tug. And it also features two clear windows, so you can peek through to the other side.

On the front, the familiar face of Sir Robert Borden remains. (I confess, I had to look that up. Turns out, I don’t encounter many $100 bills.) On the back, though, there is a new glorious celebration of Canada’s history of medical innovation.

A woman peers into a microscope above a tiny insulin bottle to celebrate the discovery of insulin in 1921. Clinical trials for this discovery were performed in what is now the Heritage Building of the MaRS Discovery District. To her right, a DNA strand reminds us of the strong tradition of genetic sequencing happening in Canada, and an ECG graph hints at Canada’s invention of the first pacemaker in 1950.

On one side of the new bill is a tiny maple leaf window, and on the other, a large window of clear polymer with holographic images of Borden and the Parliament buildings. To top it off, there are special features for the blind and partially sighted – a tactile feature, bank note reader codes, large, high-contrast numerals and the different coloured denominations.

“There’s a juxtaposition between the old and new in the bill. We’ve got insulin and the pacemaker, as well as Canada’s groundbreaking and ongoing contributions to medical research.

“There’s a juxtaposition between the old and new in the bill,” says Gaetz. “We’ve got insulin and the pacemaker, as well as Canada’s groundbreaking and ongoing contributions to medical research. We can also see the unique combination of transparency and complex holography, which is a world first!”

All this effort spent on design and manufacturing will be a huge step forward in the fight against counterfeiters. The new polymer notes have many security features, from the holographic images to a hidden number in the centre of the maple leaf window. Invisible to the naked eye, the number only appears if you look very closely through the window at a point light source such as an incandescent light bulb.

On November 14, Bank of Canada representatives manned kiosks at the MaRS event so the media could trade an old $100 note for a brand new version, starting the slow process of scooping up the 290 million $100 bills currently in circulation.

If you’re interested in getting your hands on a new $100 bill, your local bank should have the new bills in the days and weeks to come. And when you do get to handle it, take a moment to reflect on the metaphor of this new bill: a technically innovative product with medical innovation as its theme!

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…