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Copper – where things stand

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23.03.2022

Copper – where things stand

No secret has been made of the global ambition to reach net-zero emissions and greater sustainability. On the surface, this is an excellent and highly necessary initiative, but it hasn’t come without its challenges.

One of the greatest challenges we are beginning to understand the true scale of, is the growth in demand for raw materials; from neodymium to cobalt to copper. Copper is central to the new technologies being created to meet the world’s environmental goals, with The Institute for Human Rights and Business predicting there will be a 300% rise in demand for copper by 2050. This equates to 60 million tonnes of the metal being required every year, but at what cost?

THE COSTS OF COPPER

As demand increases, so does the environmental, human and financial cost

Up until now, the demand for copper has remained at a manageable level. The capacity to recycle the copper in circulation to meet demand has been hugely beneficial, as it has reduced the need to mine for it. Copper mining has a known detrimental impact on people’s health and the natural environment, leading to land degradation, deforestation, and water and air pollution. Unfortunately, with demand on the rise, recycling the existing copper will no longer be sufficient, leaving no option but to greatly increase the levels of mining.

We must also consider the financial cost of copper. In March 2022, prices spiked for the third time in less than a year, as copper stocks approached historically low levels of just 200,402 tonnes – that does not even cover three days of global consumption at the current rate. As the world risks ‘running out of copper’, CNBC reports that prices could rise to $20,000 per tonne in the next five to ten years, which when combined with the expected rise in demand begins to paint a very costly picture.

COPPER AND THE ELECTRIFICATION REVOLUTION

This is a scaling problem driven by the rise of electric vehicles

Since Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction using copper coils over 200 years ago, copper has been the metal of choice for an electrical conductor. It is, therefore, no surprise that copper is at the very core of the electric revolution. Electric vehicles are key in the global drive towards net-zero, but their batteries, motors, electrical components and even charging equipment all use copper to function.

In electric vehicles, traction motors contain copper coils that an electric current passes through to generate mechanical energy that will spin the motor and propel the vehicle. This contributes to the average battery-electric car containing 83kg of copper, which is four times that used in petrol and diesel cars.

With governments across the world setting deadlines to ban the sale of petrol, diesel, and even hybrid vehicles, battery-electric vehicles will begin to monopolise the market. According to the Financial Times, if electric vehicle sales hit the expected 40% increase by 2030, around eight times more copper will be required for annual vehicle production.

Is this a problem?

The argument goes that copper is one of the most highly recycled metals, with around two thirds of all copper mined still being used today. However, demand has never been this high, and the copper in electric motors is extremely difficult and expensive to extract for recycling, which means the motors, and the copper in them, often just ends up in landfill. As EV production ramps up, so does the amount of copper being demanded but not recycled. Unless an alternative is found, more copper will have to be mined, but is this really a sustainable future?

A DIFFERENT FUTURE

How we can support the sustainable growth of electric vehicles

We see a different future. As experts in designing and manufacturing the most sustainable electric motors, we have developed an alternative technology that will allow us to remove copper from our next generation motors. AEM has designed highly compressed aluminium windings to replace traditional copper coils that maintain the performance characteristics of the electric motors, but in a more efficient and sustainable way.

It is undeniable that copper will have a huge role to play in the future of the electric revolution, and required supply will need to greatly increase to meet the demand. However, it is important to us at AEM that we are always striving for the most sustainable solutions, why else are we all investing so much in electric vehicles if not to ensure a greener future?