The copper industry is currently navigating a complex system of supply-and-demand cycles, which is of particular concern given the increasing focus on decarbonization technologies. The relationship between global copper supply and the demand generated by green initiatives presents a zero-sum scenario: copper supply deficits threaten green initiatives, while these initiatives intensify the copper supply crisis. To avoid a stalemate, the future of green programs may depend on more efficient and sustainable use of copper.

Copper Supply Shortfall

Recently, copper prices hit record highs, surpassing the $5 per pound threshold. Analysts attribute much of this price surge to soaring demand, driven largely by the role copper plays in renewable energy, decarbonization efforts, and power grid investments. In 2022, copper production was approximately 22 million metric tons (MMT), while demand was around 26 MMT, with recycled copper making up the difference. Some analysts predict an annual copper supply shortfall of 8 million tons by 2034, posing a significant hurdle for future green energy projects.

Impact on Green Goals

Technologies used in green initiatives could potentially eliminate two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, achieving net-zero carbon emission targets would require doubling annual copper demand to 50 MMT, which is unlikely given the current struggle to increase copper output. Richard Adkerson, former CEO of Freeport-McMoRan, predicts that surging copper demand will lead to a supply shortfall as society rapidly adopts electric cars, renewable electricity, and power grid expansions.

Wire and cable products are crucial for green programs. The use of copper in these applications related to the green energy transition could grow from 0.8 MMT to 6.7 MMT between 2020 and 2040. While conventional applications will see a modest increase of 0.5% by 2040, there will be significant growth in green energy sectors: an 11% increase in demand from electric vehicles (EVs) and chargers, a 19% increase from grid expansion, and a 7% increase from renewable energy technologies.

Bimetallic 'Supermetals' as a Solution

Bimetallic wire, an engineered electrical conductor composed of two separate metals metallurgically bonded together, offers a potential solution. This combination of metals creates a 'Supermetal' that leverages the strengths of both materials. For example, a bimetallic wire with a core of steel or aluminum and a copper exterior can provide increased strength and improved energy efficiency while conserving copper.

Popular bimetallic 'Supermetals' in the power grid and construction markets include Copper-Clad Steel (CCS) and Copper-Clad Aluminum (CCA). CCS conductors have been used in various applications for nearly a century, while CCA has been widely used in telecommunications and building construction for over 50 years.

Benefits of Bimetallic Conductors

  1. Reduced Copper Consumption: Bimetallic conductors optimize copper usage, sometimes using only one-sixth the copper found in solid copper wire.
  2. Improved Energy Efficiency: CCA building wire has 2.7% lower impedance, translating into energy savings and less strain on the power grid.
  3. Enhanced Strength: CCS conductors provide up to three times more tensile strength than solid copper, suitable for demanding conditions.
  4. Extended Service Life: CCS conductors offer up to five times more flex-fatigue endurance, withstanding repeated stress and impact.
  5. Improved Connections: The corrosion-resistant copper exterior and annealed steel core of CCS wire ensure secure connections that remain intact through years of use.
  6. Reduced Incentives for Theft: Bimetallic wires have lower street value, making them less attractive to thieves.
  7. Improved Cost Stability: With lower copper content, bimetallic wires are less susceptible to price fluctuations.

Solid copper wire has been the default material for electrical circuits for over a century. However, bimetals present a viable alternative that sustains the copper industry by optimizing copper use. With copper supply deficits threatening decarbonization and green energy goals, bimetallic wire reduces copper usage in many applications, reserving copper for critical areas. By conserving copper and providing energy savings, bimetallic 'Supermetals' allow copper to be used where it is needed most, supporting the transition to green energy technologies, especially geothermal.