The world is transitioning 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 is becoming increasingly difficult to extract and produce, so people are trying to offer alternatives. One of the more curious ones is a surprise, especially since we're talking about aluminum, which is not a metal with good conductivity... until we added some ingredients and created a much more promising alloy.
The future needs (a lot of) wires. 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 for the distribution of this electrical production.
Experts at Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm in this field, estimate, for example, that offshore wind farms will require 5.5 megatonnes of metal over 10 years, mostly for the huge wiring systems in the generators and to carry that electricity from the turbines to shore.
Copper is the new oil. The price of copper has soared in recent years, and the growing scarcity in the face of demand has led Goldman Sachs to describe it as "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 USA, but the truth is that extracting it is becoming increasingly difficult and costly. The solution, of course, is to look for a better alternative.
Aluminum to power. Several companies and industries have been making the cost-saving partial transition from copper to aluminum for years: Saudi Electricity Co. saved $640 million on its infrastructure six years ago, and manufacturers such as Toyota have confirmed that they use aluminum instead of copper in models such as the Land Cruiser.
Looking for a superaluminum. This metal is a poorer conductor, but it is cheaper to produce and for certain scenarios using it pays off. For others it doesn't, and that's where research like that of Keerti Kappagantula, a materials scientist at Pacific Northwest National Lab, comes in.
Traditionally, achieving a more conductive metal was based on making metals as pure as possible, but this scientist is going in the opposite direction and is "dirtying" 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 such an alloy with improved conductivity. It is still expected that at most its conductivity will be half that of copper, but that it will also be half as cheap to produce.
But it makes sense to use it. Why use it then? 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 research continues and so far they have not achieved the objective, but those responsible believe that "they are on the right track". We will see if this is the case.