The Research, Development & Innovation (RD&I) division develops projects related to innovative topics for the Aurubis Group and works on sustainable process and product improvements.
As a leading integrated copper group and the world’s largest copper recycler, Aurubis not only offers a broad spectrum of products and a successful business model but also provides answers to forward-looking questions. Are we ready for a future with increasing energy and resource scarcity, as well as a trend towards copper substitution, rising complexity of primary and secondary raw materials, stricter environmental protection regulations and extensive recycling efforts? How do we find the right solutions for these developments at Aurubis?
The Research, Development & Innovation (RD&I) division poses these questions, because only with the right ideas and targeted research can Aurubis develop new products and processes leading to innovations that ensure a sustainable competitive edge.
Goals and projects in Research, Development & Innovation
Aurubis strives to be a pioneer in its industry. The goal of RD&I is therefore to develop new ideas and concepts that offer added value for the company. The interdisciplinary, international team made up of specialists in metallurgy, chemistry, process technology and mathematics works with all of the internal departments on special optimization and development measures on the one hand and builds long-term support networks with external cooperation partners on the other.
RD&I projects involve existing production sites as well as sound out new areas in which Aurubis wants to play a significant role in the future – and are thus separated into four main categories:
• Exploration: growth areas and cutting-edge fields
• Development: new processes and products
• Optimization: improvements in all processes with regard to environmental protection and costs
• Support of existing production processes
The development of new processes and products and the continuous advancement and optimization of existing ones make a decisive contribution to Aurubis’s sustainable business success – and have been part of the company’s identity since it was founded.
For example, trials to electrolytically refine copper were already carried out in the 1870s, leading to the start-up of the first facility of this kind on an industrial scale in 1876. The production of different copper chemicals was investigated up until the 1990s, ultimately leading to the spin-off Spiess-Urania, which produces and markets special chemicals. Furthermore, the improvement and optimization of various processes have always been closely monitored. Since the turn of the millennium, the processes registered for patents have mainly been broken down into smelting and casting processes, repair measures and the treatment of particle loads in the air.
Apart from developments for the main product lines, Aurubis has also been active in uncharted territory: various patents for solar cell technology were also registered from 1999 to 2002. Photovoltaics was viewed as a future market at that time, so it made sense to present copper, with its special features, as a metal of the future. The elements indium and selenium – which, when taken together with copper, result in the chemical symbols Cu, In and Se, as well as the abbreviation CIS – provide copper with an alternative to solar cells made of silicon. In fiscal year 2000/01, CIS Solartechnik GmbH was founded in Hamburg with the participation of Norddeutsche Affinerie and a new lab for further CIS research was set up on the island of Peute. Up until 2010, the readiness of the CIS solar cell for series production was proven in a pilot production line that had been established in the south washhouse in 2007. Unfortunately, dramatic changes on the global solar market – including price declines and relocations of production to Asia – made the development of internal series production no longer profitable.
Another example emphasizes that, in addition to technical facilities for producing renewable energies, vehicle engineering is and will remain a future market for Aurubis. This is not only demonstrated by the excellent sales situation for electrical connectors. In Finspång, Sweden, copper-based cooling technology for engines is manufactured using CuproBraze, a joint development by several leading copper producers to promote their metal as an alternative to aluminum, which has been the preferred choice in heat exchanger technology since the 1990s. This is because one material enhances heat exchangers’ quality, efficiency and resistance against high strain: copper.
What lies ahead?
In light of the corporate strategy of increasing the complexity of input materials, RD&I work is called for in this area as well. It is becoming more important than ever to handle the input of complex raw materials proactively, as processes must be made more “robust” in anticipation of primary and secondary materials that contain higher levels of impurities. This is accompanied by new developments. Furthermore, the view has to be extended more strongly beyond individual facilities to the overall processing methods. The amount of influential variables and data is increasing immensely. The process simulation team within RD&I is currently being expanded to account for these developments.
The work of RD&I will be increasingly interconnected in the future. For this purpose, a knowledge network is currently being developed to facilitate cooperation among different companies, universities and institutes, for instance in the form of cross-industry expert workshops. This approach across companies and, in some cases, across sectors will promote the development of promising innovations at Aurubis.