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09 December 2010 at 15:37 - Posted by Philip_Opperman

Microthread technology convicts copper cable thieves!


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Microthread in high-voltage cable
Microthread in low-voltage cable
Microthread at 1,000 x magnification

Copper cable theft is frustrating on many levels, but perhaps the most frustrating is when the police nab a cable thief, only to find that they cannot prove that the copper in his possession is stolen.
He could have simply picked it up somewhere, not so?
However, South African microdot manufacturer Recoveri is about to launch a world-first product aimed at countering exactly this problem says Recoveri CEO and former member of the police’s detective branch, Philip Opperman.
Microdot technology was first used on cars, where it sees 10 000 to 15 000 1-mm × 1-mm dots being applied, using an ultraviolet adhesive, to a vehicle on 90 different spots. These microdots – think of them as DNA for your car – carry a microscopic 17-digit laser-etched VIN or vehicle identification number to identify the vehicle and, by implication, its owner. This number is visible only under an ultraviolet light and by using a special magnifying lens.
The beauty of this technology is that vehicle thieves are never able to remove all the dots – which means the police can identify a vehicle, or its parts, as stolen, and return it to its rightful owner, traceable through the 17-digit number. The presence of the microdots, therefore, serves as a theft deterrent.
Recoveri now hopes to apply the same principle to copper cable theft through the use of microthreads – a string with micromarking – inserted into the copper cabling at the manufacturer’s level.
These threads can either make use of a copper substrate, which makes it very hard to spot in the cable housing, or a cheaper plastic substrate. (Prices for these products range between 50c to 90c a metre.)
Removing this thread is impossible (Engineering News tried), which means that any length of copper cable can positively be identified as having been stolen, while its owner can also be traced.
The sequential numbers which are etched onto the thread, which is then inserted into the cable, are logged on Recoveri website’s database, explains Opperman, and if any length of this cable is stolen, the sequence of numbers that have been taken are marked as a ‘hot thread’ on this internationally accessible site.
The thread will survive the first step in a cable thief’s attempt to sell the stolen goods, namely the burning of the cable’s plastic housing, as well as the copper shredding process, says Opperman, but not the smelting of the copper. However, most of the copper cable stolen in South Africa leaves the country without this happening.
Opperman says Recoveri is currently in talks with Eskom and one or two local metropolitan councils to put the microthread to the test.
“We have a patent pending on this,” says Opperman. “We worked two-and-a-half years on perfecting this. We had to make sure we created an indisputable chain of evidence for the police to be able to prosecute cable theft with as much success as possible.”
He adds that the one thing he realised during his police career is that curtailing demand is one of the most successful ways to combat crime. Opperman hopes crime syndicates will stop buying stolen cable as it grows increasingly difficult to source and sell on, which could then lead to a sharp reduction in the theft of this product, providing power to traffic lights, lights and telephones, to name but a few applications.
The seven-year-old Recoveri has already found a rather unexpected use for its microthread in the Cote d’Ivoire, where it is used to validate university degrees. 
“We have also sent some of the thread to two international clothing manufacturers as part of an attempt to verify their products’ authenticity, as compared with counterfeit goods,” says Opperman.
He adds that the thread can be used in any cable, and not only copper cables.

Philip opperman can be contacted on +27 11 453-0868 or email

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