Aurubis Bulgaria, the largest company in this country with a 6.6 billion levs (3.3 billion euro) turnover in 2021, will increase its production of copper cathodes by 50% to 340,000 tonnes a year. The project, assessed at 120 million euro, was recently approved by the supervisory board of Germany's Aurubis Group. It will allow the smelter located near the towns of Pirdop and Zlatitsa to process all its anodes locally, instead of transporting them to other refineries of the group in Europe. Once the expansion of the refinery is commissioned in the second half of 2026, the end product of the company will be high-purity metal (99.99% copper content), which is the standard traded on the London Metal Exchange.
Balancing the system
The project is the largest individual investment since the German group (then called Norddeutsche Affinerie) acquired the plant in 2008. Shortly before that the previous owner, Cumerio (part of Umicore), had built a new refinery on the site. Aurubis has carried out several large-scale investment programs, including the 180 million euro Spectrum 2018 and the 130 million euro Aurubis Bulgaria 2022, which comprised several projects each.
The reason why the group chose its Bulgarian plant for the expansion is that it has large output of anodes (impure copper). So far significant volumes have been shipped by train to Aurubis's refineries in Belgium and Germany. The additional capacity now will allow them to be processed in Bulgaria, adding value to the company and the economy. At the same time the group will expand some of its other capacities to replace the anode supplies from Bulgaria. "It is really balancing the system and Pirdop is the most reasonable, the best option for us to expand tankhouse capacities," Aurubis Group CEO Roland Harings told the Capital Weekly.
The investment will also allow the group to reduce its logistics costs and carbon footprint, as well as optimize the material flows within its smelter network. The anticipated financial effect will be an earnings contribution (EBITDA) of 30 million euro per year.
The expansion in Bulgaria is a part of the group's strategic projects. By 2026, it will invest 1.1 billion euro in strengthening its core business, including boosting its recycling capacity. Aurubis is one of the largest recycling companies in the world, with some 45% of the copper cathode output coming from recycled materials.
"We have set a target that by 2030 our recycling rate will be 50% for copper, while increasing the volumes, as seen with the investment in Pirdop. So we are accelerating our recycling," Harings explained.
In his words, the project in Bulgaria has to be seen in the context of increasing the metal units in the group, which requires more processing capacity also in the tankhouses. The group has tankhouses in Pirdop, Hamburg, Lunen, Olen and Beerse. "The main point of this investment is that we will increase our cathode production capacity by 120,000 tonnes within the group. To put it in perspective, today our production capacity is around 1.1 million tonnes a year. So we are adding around 10% with the investment in Pirdop," Harings said.
There is a solid logic behind the expansion. Global demand for copper is constantly growing, driven by the acceleration of renewable projects like wind farms and solar power plants, as well as by electrification and electric mobility.
Aurubis Bulgaria is also investing in its own solar park. With its 10 megawatt capacity at the first stage, which was completed in 2022, the project is the largest photovoltaic park for own consumption in Bulgaria. In Harings' words the company is very pleased with the outcome, as the amount of electricity produced there is above expectations. "That encouraged us to make the next step. We are more than doubling the capacity with the expansion we approved in December. And we have potential to go even further in future," he said. By 2030, the company plans to meet 20% of its needs with its own renewable energy production.