Can redesigned aluminum help meet copper demand?

Consider for a Wait, the electric wire, a ubiquitous technology that’s very easy to forget. Coiled in our devices, wrapped around our walls, strung along our streets, millions of tons of thin metal threads do the job of electrifying the world. But her work is benign and so naturalistic that it doesn’t feel like technology at all. Wires move electrons simply because that’s what metals do when they’re supplied with electricity: they conduct.

But there is always room for improvement. Metals conduct electricity because they contain free electrons that are not bound to specific atoms. The more electrons flow and the faster they go, the better a metal conducts. To improve this conductivity – crucial for conserving the energy produced in a power plant or stored in a battery – materials scientists are usually looking for more perfect atomic arrangements. Their main goal is purity – to remove any debris or imperfections that disrupt the flow. The more a piece of gold is gold, the more a copper wire is copper, the better it conducts. Everything else just gets in the way.

“If you want something really highly conductive, you just have to go in,” says Keerti Kappagantula, a materials scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Lab. She therefore finds her own research rather “shaky”. Her goal is to make metals more conductive by crafting them fewer pure. It will take a metal like aluminum and add additives like graphene or carbon nanotubes to create an alloy. Get it just right, Kappagantula has found, and the extra material can have a weird effect: It can push the metal past its theoretical conductivity limit.

In this case, it’s about making aluminum, which can compete with copper in electrical equipment — a metal that’s almost twice as conductive but also costs about twice as much. Aluminum has advantages: it is much lighter than copper. And as the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust – thousands of times more than copper – it’s also cheaper and easier to mine.

Copper, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly difficult to source as the world transitions to greener energy. Although it has long been ubiquitous in wiring and motors, demand for it is increasing rapidly. An electric vehicle uses about four times as much copper as a conventional car, and even more is needed for the electrical components of renewable power plants and the cables that connect them to the grid. Analysts at Wood Mackenzie, an energy research firm, estimate that offshore wind farms will need 5.5 megatons of the metal over 10 years, mostly for the massive cable system in generators and to transport the electrons produced by the turbines the coast. In recent years, the price of copper has skyrocketed and analysts are predicting a growing shortage of copper. Goldman Sachs recently declared it the “new oil”.

Some companies are already swapping it out for aluminum where they can. In recent years there has been a multi-billion dollar shift in components from air conditioning to auto parts. High-voltage power lines already use aluminum wires because they are both cheap and light, which allows them to be stretched over longer distances. This aluminum is typically in its purest and most conductive form.

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