Heavy metal - copper theft

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2011
railway line at night

Following year-on-year increases in reported incidents of metal theft in the UK, the British Transport Police has joined with designers to explore solutions. Stuart Preston, of the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network, goes behind the scene of the crime.

Copper theft hit an all-time high in March 2010, while pilfering of lead, aluminium and steel is also rising steeply. It is estimated that the UK economy is being damaged to a level greater than £700m per year, with examples of the impact of copper theft including –

  • A significant call centre lost power for a number of days.
  • One incident of power failure cost £24m.
  • Hospitals have resorted to back-up generators due to cable theft.
  • Gatwick Airport reverted to back-up power due to metal theft.
  • 13 criminals have been killed in the extraction of copper power cable.
  • Numerous police officers have been hurt in dealing with the problem and its aftermath.

As a result, insurance claims and premiums are increasing, placing a heavier load on UK business, while the public has been affected through flooding (theft of metal lock gates), the closure of schools, and damage to churches and other community property.

Delays arising on the rail network are also impacting adversely on UK business. With 16,000km of track in the UK, the cost of policing the copper infrastructure is enormous. From mid 2007, the number of thefts of copper cable has risen, and this is costing Network Rail tens of millions of pounds each year. Steel fencing is not a deterrent – in fact, heavy fencing is cut and removed along with the copper cables.  

Simultaneously, copper thefts are increasing within the telecommunications sector – from the telecoms exchange, underground cable networks and from engineering centres where cable is often stored. The cost to BT in 2010 was estimated at £2.43m, which included the raw material and repair costs. The consequent disruption to business is likely to be substantially larger than this.

This growing problem is strongly associated with rising prices for copper and other metals, and the same issue is being seen across many developed economies.

Detective work

A workshop organised by the Design Exchange sector of the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network was held on 4 November 2010 to prevent or deter metal theft, in particular copper cable. Hands-on demonstrations revealed that cutting cable, up to 70mm in diameter, was easy using modern, battery-powered, hand-held power tools.

Representatives from the Home Office, British Transport Police, Network Rail and BT Open Reach joined materials scientists and designers to explore potential solutions both at and beyond the scene of crime. These include –

  • Why copper? Why not employ wireless technology for signalling?
  • A noise trigger that activates when the cable duct covers are opened.
  • Making the cable more difficult to cut using manganese steel or ceramic cermets.
  • Applying a smart material sheath that reacts aggressively on being cut.
  • Introduce dopant trace elements to identify the copper’s origin.
  • Produce a change of colour, introduce a smell, create slime, or introduce a sting to the action of cutting a cable.
  • Use of a GPS tracker on cables installed in targeted and sensitive areas.
  • Control of the market by licensing dealers in copper cable and only accepting sheathed cable.

The preference is for an integrated solution that combine these key ideas to form a ‘deterrent package’.

On the road

To progress this further, a travelling workshop in March engaged with an enlarged interdisciplinary team that involved cable manufacturers and waste metal dealers. The aim was to understand process constraints in manufacturing and disposing of copper cable, and explore the problems encountered at the scene of the crime.

The first port of call was B3 Cable Solutions in Blackley, Manchester. Ken Macdonald and his team at B3 Cables described the manufacture of multistrand copper cables, chiefly for the telecommuni cations industry. The aim was to help attendees identify how best traces or smart materials could be introduced into the process. The value afforded to the end products in the marketplace was clear from B3 Cables’ use of CCTV monitoring and dog patrols to guard cable stores.

The group then moved on to a disused railway siding. This helped them observe how difficult or easy it might be to get onto the railway track, and to realise the magnitude of the task in policing thousands of kilometres of track. The final visit of the day was to Crossley Evans metal recyclers in Shipley, Bradford, where attendees were shown the considerable lengths that a metal dealer has to go to in order to maintain close control of the supply.

During the journey to these sites, presentations were given by the Home Office and British Transport Police on metal theft and the problems experienced in maintaining forensic cleanliness at crime scenes such as railway sidings. This is partly due to a conflict between railway companies wanting to resume service, while the police need time to complete a proper forensic search.

The next steps are to create working groups to test the feasibility of the solutions put forward and to explore potential funding streams. Missions overseas that investigate how other countries tackle this problem are also on the agenda.

Further information

Stuart Preston can be contacted via the IOM3 Materials Information Service