Materials & Applications

Why Copper is Key to a Sustainable Electric Future

copper demand

As we enter a new era of global industrialisation and technological innovation, demand for ‘the red metal’ will see unprecedented growth. The future is electric, and copper is the enabler.

In our new eBook Industry in Focus: Copper, we highlighted the anticipated surge in demand for copper across a variety of global sectors.

By 2023, the global copper market is expected to reach a staggering US$171.96 billion. Emerging energy trends and rising global electrification are huge contributors to this figure, offering suppliers a wealth of new opportunities to generate revenue.

Electricity production and distribution is changing, and here’s why copper suppliers should be interested…

The people want power

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over 100 million people per year have gained access to electricity since 2012. In 2016, global investment in electricity overtook oil and gas for the first time in history, an upswing fuelled by emerging economies across Africa and Asia.

Most notable among those flying the flag for change is China, a country whose industry and infrastructure has created a litany of environmental issues. To counter this, the government has called for a clean “energy revolution” powered by electricity and underpinned by a more services-based economic model. Should all go to plan, IEA predicts that China could exceed the European Union’s per-capita energy consumption by 2040.

According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2017, electricity is the “rising force among worldwide end-uses of energy”, and by 2040, it will make up 40% of the rise in final consumption. A durable and recyclable metal with excellent electrical conduction properties, copper is the ideal material to help produce and distribute electricity in this new, emerging world.

copper demand worldwide
The base of the CPU cooler and the copper heat pipes

Goodbye aluminium?

60% of total copper use today is for the conduction of electricity and heat, a standard by which all other conductors are measured.

Traditionally, overhead power line conductions are aluminium-based. While copper is the superior conductor, steel-reinforced aluminium and aluminium alloys have long been preferred thanks to their lighter weight and strength. However, a new form of ultra-conductive copper (UCC) produced by combining copper with graphene may prove transformative for the industry.

Funded and directed by the International Copper Association (ICA), the new material offers electrical conductivity 16% higher than regular copper, as well as lower resistance, lighter weight, and a smaller size. Should the breakthrough research find its way to market, UCC could be used as a more efficient alternative to aluminium power lines, as well as all other electrical applications.

Renewable energy matters

Environmental issues are at the fore of public discussion. High-profile environmental pledges under the Paris Agreement dominate the headlines, with renewable energy playing a key role in the transition to a more sustainable energy economy.

By 2022, 30% of the world’s electricity will be generated from wind and solar sources. The world has a newfound appetite for renewable energy, and compared to heat and biofuels, electricity is set to take the lion’s share.
Of course, to enable this renewable future, the world will need more copper. A single wind farm can contain anywhere between 4 and 15 million pounds of copper, while PV solar energy systems use approximately 5.5 tons of copper per MW.

In addition to its conductive properties, minimal maintenance costs, and corrosion resistance, copper is infinitely recyclable. Posing no risk to its resistance, conductivity, or versatility, copper is the ultimate material for a more sustainable, carbon-neutral future. In fact, two-thirds of the copper produced since 1900 is still in productive use.

Copper powers up

In our piece on electric vehicles (EVs), we highlighted how the market’s rapid growth would have a substantial impact on copper demand. And it’s not just the electric vehicles themselves that will see the sector’s copper demand inflate, but the electrical infrastructure needed to power it. By 2027, it’s expected the EV industry will demand 1.74 million tonnes of copper.

We may live an age of uncertainty, but as the world fights on for a more sustainable future, one thing is certain – copper is king.

Next steps

To learn more about the growing demand for copper across different industries worldwide, read our eBook, Industry in Focus: Copper.

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