By Peter Pollak, The Aluminum Association (Retired).
According to goals announced by the U.S. and European Union, there are widespread commitments to eliminate global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. An important aspect of achieving a net-zero emissions goal within this time frame is electrifying the global vehicle fleet and switching power generation to renewable energy sources.
Technologies critical to the energy transition include electric vehicles (EVs), charging infrastructure, solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, batteries, and a reconfigured electric grid. All of this technology requires much more copper wire than their conventional fossil-based counterparts. The rapid, large-scale deployment of these technologies globally, EV fleets particularly, will generate a huge surge in copper demand. Major investments in the power grid to support electrification and evolving technologies, such as distributed generation, offshore wind farms, high voltage direct current, smart grid, etc. will also be needed.
A new, in-depth study by S&P Global finds that copper demand from this energy transition will accelerate steeply through 2035.1 The study predicts that achieving the stated climate goals will require a rapid, massive ramp-up of copper supply—essentially a doubling of today’s global copper supply by 2035 (Figure 1). Furthermore, supply shortfalls are expected to begin in 2025 and last through most of the following decade. The study also warns that unless new copper mines, which normally take 16 years to develop, are commissioned, the goal of net-zero emissions cannot be achieved. The result of this supply-demand mismatch will mean higher copper prices (Figure 2).
In recent years, the price of copper has spiked and analysts project a growing shortfall of the metal. In fact, Goldman Sachs recently declared copper “the new oil”. Ironically, the solution to the projected copper shortage problem already exists and is hiding in plain sight.
Opportunity for Aluminum
For electrical conducting applications, aluminum can do everything that copper can, with one pound of aluminum providing the same amount of conductance for two pounds of copper. In addition, aluminum is one-third the weight of copper and is 60% less expensive. It is also 1,000 times more abundant on the Earth’s surface than copper.
As a result, aluminum provides a viable alternative to copper for a number of electrical applications. Aluminum has already been used to replace copper in several traditional electrical conductor markets, including electric transmission, distribution, building wire, bus bar, magnet wire, and transformers, etc. Applications for electric charging stations and renewable energy sources can also be developed using aluminum with similar benefits.
Research on improving the conductivity of aluminum for electrical applications has been ongoing for a number of years. AutoNetworks Technologies and Sumitomo Electric jointly released research on an aluminum wiring harness and a replacement for conventional copper wires.2 The researchers were able to develop an aluminum alloy conductor with improved electrical conductivity, tensile strength, and workability.
A team of researchers from Newcastle University developed and tested precompressed aluminum coils for use as windings in automotive traction motors.3 The study showed that AC losses could be reduced to low levels using stranded/Litz wire.
U.S. government agencies have also been looking at aluminum, with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation sponsoring fundamental research to increase the electrical conductivity of aluminum. The hope is that doing so will ease the copper supply issues and thereby help to support the 2050 carbon neutrality program.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), managed by the DOE’s Office of Science, is currently one of the organizations focused on this research.4 The lab believes that an ultra-conductive aluminum could provide enormous potential in revolutionizing the electrical market and power grid, as well as EVs.
“Conductivity is key because a lighter weight wire with equivalent conduction can be used to design lighter motors and other electrical components, so your vehicle can potentially go longer distances,” said Keerti Kappagantula, a PNNL materials scientist.4 “Everything from a car’s electronics to energy generation to transmitting that energy to your home via the grid to charge your car’s battery—anything that runs on electricity—it can all become more efficient.”
If the electrical industry was being started today, aluminum—not copper—would be the “material of electrification,” as was suggested by Nikola Tesla more than 130 years ago.5 Tesla believed that aluminum electrical wire and conductors would be a part of the age of light metals that he predicted would evolve because of aluminum’s superior properties compared to those of copper.
Historically, aluminum market development has largely been a top-down affair, driven by vertically integrated aluminum companies. However, globalization and decoupling of aluminum production from fabrication businesses appears to have slowed or ceased that dynamic in some sectors. In comparison, the development of aluminum wiring harnesses, motor windings, renewable power sources, and their associated infrastructure has been and continues to be more of a bottom up affair. Users are currently developing new aluminum conductor applications to enable the realization of net-zero environmental goals. This presents a fantastic opportunity for aluminum—one the industry should be eager to take advantage of.
- “The Future of Copper: Will the looming supply gap short-circuit the energy transition?” S&P Global, 2022.
- Nishimura, Naoya, et al., “Aluminum Wiring Harness,” SEI Technical Review, No. 79, October 2014.
- Widmer, James D., et al., “Precompressed and Stranded Aluminum Motor Windings for Traction Motors,” IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications, Vol. 52, No. 3, 2015, pp. 2,215–2,223, https://dx.doi.org/10.1109/TIA.2016.2528226.
- Freibott, Alexandra, “Cooking Up a Conductive Alternative to Copper with Aluminum,” PNNL, June 29, 2022.
- “Tesla’s View on Uses of Aluminum,” Tesla Universe.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Light Metal Age. To receive the current issue, please subscribe.