Topic of the month October 2011

Cables, roof gutters, church roofs and even graveside lamps: No copper object is currently safe from thieves. Due to the high raw materials prices, the illegal trade in the bright red metal is flourishing. In recent years the price increase in the industrial metal has been enormous, from early 2009 to the beginning of 2011 copper prices have more than trebled. Parallel to this trend, the price of copper scrap has also risen and is making thefts of the metal a lucrative business.

Picture 1: Typical copper scrap (Photo: Aurubis)

Copper was already used by human beings around 10,000 years ago in the Stone Age. It is a relatively soft and ductile metal, but also very resistant and durable and can be easily processed and shaped. Around 40 per cent of all copper applications today are in the construction sector, both in the electrical as well as sanitary installation fields. A further significant application area is that of electrical engineering, because copper possesses outstanding thermal and electricity conductivity. In addition copper alloys, among them in particular brass and bronze, are increasingly used in the architectural sector. The world’s leading copper producer is Chile with the United States and Peru a long way behind them.

The focus of attention for the metal thieves is frequently railway lines, last year they targeted German Railways’ (DB) cables around 2,500 times. And the figures are continuing to rise dramatically. Just recently in September thieves brought the line between Magdeburg and Braunschweig (Brunswick) to a standstill for three hours, because they had removed grounding cables. The signal cables are also particularly popular. The criminal gangs initially transport them to Eastern European countries, there the plastic sheeting is burnt off and the metal then shipped to the Far East. Due to their geographical location, the new federal states are particularly badly affected, because the valuable stolen goods can be quickly moved across the border. The police regularly recover stolen copper in controls on the German-Polish border.

The thieves take everything they can get their hands on. Live cables are stripped of their insulation and the cable strands individually cut. In particular the supply cables to floating dredges and conveyor belts in gravel plants are very sought after and very expensive to replace. Copper thieves have already also broken into wind turbine transformer stations and on top of this they have been stealing dozens of lamps, crosses and other copper objects from cemeteries and graves. The damage can be considerable, for example when cable drums weighing tons are removed from building sites.

There is no stopping the thieves even when it comes to works of art. In this connection in Schwerin a bust of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann ended up on the scrapheap, sawn into pieces – the thieves had mistaken the bronze bust for copper. The 84-kilogramme monument for the Troy excavators had been stolen, sawn up and sold to a raw materials dealer in the vicinity. The “Frau mit Kind” (“Woman with Child”) from the small town of Bünde in East-Westphalia has also disappeared.

The Federal Association of German Steel Recycling and Waste Disposal Companies (Bundesverband Deutscher Stahlrecycling- und Entsorgungsunternehmen) stresses that the scrap dealers must always insist on the sellers showing them their personal ID to ensure they are not sold any stolen goods. But they cannot rule out buying stolen non-ferrous metals. German Railways is now going on the offensive: in future it will be marking rails, cables and equipment with a numerical code invisible to the thieves. When exposed to special light, the micro-particles in the integrated numerical code become visible. To this end German Railways’ employees are explaining to the scrap dealers how they can recognize stolen goods from German Railways’ stock.

At Christmas time 2008 the price of copper was just 2,790 Dollars a ton. In February this year the metal traded for 10,190 Dollars, in the meantime the price has once again fallen below the 8,000-Euro Mark. Copper prices are very heavily dependent on the world economy. If the economy is booming, demand for copper and with it the price also increases. Last year demand was so great that there was a supply deficit of just over 400,000 tons. Although over 16 million tons of the red metal are freshly obtained from copper ore worldwide each year, the costs of mining copper have clearly risen, as copper always has to be obtained from ore with an increasingly low raw material-content. That means that for the same amount of copper more and more stone has to be removed. Energy consumption also clearly increases, because the copper has to be crushed and fused in an expensive process.

Copper recycling is popular, particularly in Europe where copper deposits are small and have been exhausted. Germany meets almost half its copper requirements through recycling, worldwide the share is around 10%. Copper can be reused as often as required without any quality impairment, because the electrolytic refining makes it possible to remove precious and non-precious impurities from copper without any residues. Around 80% of all copper ever produced is still in use today.

Image 2: Round billets (cakes) in the continuous casting warehouse (Photo: Aurubis)

To ensure that companies can protect themselves from cable theft, Klotter from Rheinau has developed a special cable surveillance alarm system. The so-called KÜWAG is a sensor-controlled surveillance device, which can be connected to up to five copper cables and then triggers an alarm when the cable is damaged or cut through. A signal horn and spotlight are then activated and the security personnel also alerted by SMS.

Secplan from Reichelsheim has developed the Videofied security system, a wireless system consisting of a movement sensor and camera. The components do not require any infrastructure, as they operate up to 4 years on battery power and the alarm is sent via the mobile communications network. After activation by the movement sensor, the system records a 10-second video sequence and sends it to the security personnel. This enables false alarms caused by animals to already be recognized in the emergency call centre and the thieves to be caught red-handed by the police.


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