Saturday, December 2

Getting copper is getting harder and harder. The solution may be in the aluminum

The world is making a transition to renewable energy, and that is causing the demand for conductive metals for motors and wiring to grow dramatically. Copper has been the traditional choice, but it’s getting harder to mine and produce, so people are trying to offer alternatives. One of the most curious is a surprise, especially since we are talking about aluminum, which is not a metal with good conductivity… until we add some ingredients and create a much more promising alloy.

The future needs (many) cables. An electric vehicle needs four times more copper than a normal car, and things are going to get even more interesting if we take into account that the new renewable energy plants are going to need a lot of wiring to distribute that electricity production.

Experts at Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy in this area, estimate, for example, that offshore wind farms will require 5.5 megatons of metal over 10 years, mostly for the huge wiring systems in generators and to carry that electricity from the turbines to the coast.

Copper is the new oil. The price of copper has skyrocketed in recent years, and growing scarcity in the face of demand has prompted Goldman Sachs to call it “the new oil.”

Fitch analysts expect an annual production increase of 3.1% between 2020 and 2029. Australia, Canada and Chile are major players here along with Peru and the US, but the truth is that extracting it is increasingly difficult and costly. The solution, of course, is to look for a better alternative.

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aluminum to power. Several companies and industries have been making this partial transition from copper to aluminum for years, something that allows saving costs: the electric company Saudi Electricity Co. saved 640 million dollars in its infrastructure six years ago, and manufacturers such as Toyota have confirmed that they use aluminum in place of copper in models such as the Land Cruiser.

Looking for a super aluminum. This metal is a worse conductor, but it is cheaper to produce and for certain scenarios using it pays off. Not for others, and that’s where research like Keerti Kappagantula, a materials scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, comes in.

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Traditionally, achieving a more conductive metal was based on achieving the purest metals possible, but this scientist is going in the opposite direction and is “dirtying” the aluminum with additives such as graphene or carbon nanotubes to produce a promising alloy.

Not as good as copper... The research hopes to end up offering that alloy with improved conductivity. Still, its conductivity is expected to be at most half that of copper, but it will also be half as cheap to produce.

But it makes sense to use it. Why use it then? Well, because aluminum has its advantages. It is much lighter than copper, but it is also the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust (about 1,000 times more), which makes it cheaper and easier to obtain. The investigation continues and for the moment they have not achieved the objective, but those responsible believe that “they are on the right track.” We will see if it is so.

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