/ 22 July 2008

Newly developed tiger wire changes when melted down

Copper theft in South Africa hinders service delivery in industries such as telecommunications, transport and energy, with financial losses of an estimated R5-billion each year.

The increasing rate of the amount of copper cables being stolen has put pressure on affected companies to implement interventions.

As the biggest supplier of electricity in South Africa, Eskom has no alternative method of transporting energy to its clients. Industrial railways company Transnet Freight Rail has resorted to using a worthless copper called tiger wire to fight this crime. This copper looks like ordinary copper, but has a contaminant that makes it a brittle metal when it has been melted.

“Copper is usually melted down when recycled so what we have done is add a contaminant that makes that copper useless and worthless after it has melted down,” said Kay Nayager, Transnet’s security manager.

Nayager said that his company uses tiger wire to replace all stolen copper. “This is the best intervention we can think of because the reality is that copper is a good conductor of electricity and we refuse to keep enriching these criminals.”

Copper cables are stolen from sub-stations, signal cables, overhead lines, underground cables, transformers and railway carriages.

Transnet has 23 000 km of electrified rail track to secure with limited security means. According to Nayager, the company has lost more than R150-million because of cable theft. “We have lost an average of R150-million on cable thefts over the last financial year and this amount includes consequential damage where our trains are out of service because of theft,” he said.

Nayager said that in all the investigations Transnet has done on cable theft it has been found that the thefts are syndicated. “When these cables are stolen, they are shipped to overseas countries for a lot of money so it is not just a matter of poor people trying to get some money.”

Telecommunications companies seem to be carrying the heaviest weight of copper-cable theft. In March, South African telecommunications giant Telkom reported losses of R856-million in the period between April 1 2007 and January 31 2008.

Motlatsi Nzeku, chief of operations, said in March: “The increase in copper-cable theft is creating an environment of a rapidly deteriorating service quality and is severely affecting the delivery of sustainable ICT services to customers. In many high-theft areas, cable is repeatedly stolen, sometimes within days after replacements or repairs.”

Although cable theft is persistent all over the country Gauteng has been noted as an area where many of the cable-theft syndicates are based. Companies have been working towards establishing interventions to this growing problem.

Although Telkom’s interventions include working closely with the non-ferrous theft combating committee, government and other relevant stakeholders to formulate solutions to the interruptions caused by cable theft, perhaps the most significant intervention is Telkom’s deployment of various wireless technologies that are alternatives to copper.

Nzeku said operation of alternative access technologies entails a process of assessment, funding, planning and deployment. “It is important to note that each incident of cable theft is unique and therefore needs unique alternative interventions.”