COPPER – From the 1st metal used by humans to the essential element in technology development_PART II – How is Copper capable to harness the technology development in Digital Age?

Copper was the first metal used by man and still remains very much essential for technology development in the future. No other metal is able to beat Copper. It all started when Copper made the Bronze Age possible some 5000 years ago, which lasted for at least 2000 years after being replaced with Iron Age, but Copper was always there. Right at the start of Industrial Revolution when Iron was on the mainstream with the discovery of stainless steel, in the same time Copper did it again, and soon a new Age was possible because of it: The Electric Age. For the entire 20th century Copper had a massive impact on technology, making the Earth literally an Electric Planet.

In today´s 21st century Copper did it again making The Digital Age possible, and it very clear that Copper is capable to continuously revolutionize the technology in the future, I mean I don´t hesitate to say: Copper is the engine of technology forever. In this post I will present you some of the most recent impactful footprints made possible because of this supermetal called COPPER.

Copper’s Bright Past and Brighter Future

Here today, gone tomorrow; a truism in most cases, but not where copper is concerned. Copper is one of the most used and reused metals on earth. The copper used in your plumbing or cookware could have first been used hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. According to the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Geological Survey, known copper resources are estimated at nearly 2.63 billion tons worldwide, only about 317 million tons of which have been mined to date. The recycling rate of copper is so high that nearly all of the copper mined throughout history – some estimates go as high as 80% – is still in circulation today. Every year in the U.S. only, nearly as much copper is recovered from recycled material as is mined. This is why the value of copper scrap remains so high, with premium-grade scrap maintaining at least 95 % of the value of newly mined copper.

Copper use has withstood the test of time. Pure copper was the first metal used by man, and copper artifacts, like a copper pendant that was discovered in what is now northern Iraq, date back to about 8700 B.C. The Egyptians took full advantage of mankind’s first metal. Copper saws, chisels, knives, hoes, dishes and trays made thousands of years ago by Egyptian coppersmiths have been uncovered from tombs in excellent condition, showing surprising durability and longevity.

Today, copper, and its alloys brass (Cu-Zn) and bronze (Cu-Sn), are used for faucets, locksets, door hardware, roofing, flashing, plumbing and electrical applications, as well as decorative products inside the home – the same unique characteristics that were admired centuries ago are still valued today. Concerns about copper resources being in jeopardy are unfounded and probably based on speculation. While there has been tremendous fluctuation in copper production over the last few years, there is no indication that resources are tapering. For those who were ever worried about copper production being in danger of coming to a halt, they can rest assured that it won’t happen. Aside from using recycled and mined copper in U.S. industries, there is also a tremendous amount of scrap metal that is exported. One of copper’s many attributes is its recyclability, it is also an extremely durable metal, and when you use copper for a project, you can be certain that it will last a lifetime. So, in addition to its inherent qualities of beauty, durability and low maintenance, copper is one of the most resource-efficient building materials available today, and it will continue to be readily available in the near and distant future.

Bridging Technology

Copper continues to be the standard for residential wiring needs. It really makes life super comfortable. We all can simply look at how the things are and we already have the answer to the following examples:

  • On any given Sunday, why would anyone brave sub-zero degree temperatures at a football game when they could watch it in the comfort of home on a giant plasma flat screen with Dolby surround sound?
  • Why drive to the mall to buy your favorite artist’s new album when, in seconds, it can be legally downloaded on your home computer?
  • Why wake up and log on to your desktop when you could stay in bed and surf the Web wirelessly on your laptop?

Well… the reason to do all the suggestion mentioned in the above question is because of Copper. We can indeed do all that because Copper created the necessary tools for that, Therefore advances in technology are enabling us to create new routines and cast off the old ones. Each is anchored in convenience, can be performed with a mouse click, and completed while still in pajamas. Even as the power and prevalence of internet connections, home theaters and entertainment systems grow, one constant remains the bridge to newer technology: copper.

It’s not a secret that copper plays a major role when any kind of wiring is involved. The latest generation of copper communications wiring is Augmented Category 6 copper wiring, commonly referred to as “Cat-6a.” Once preferred for commercial office environments, Cat-6a is now being implemented more and more for residential use. This Cat-6a is designed to handle 10Gb/s (Gigabits per second) data rates. This makes it ideal for installing multiple applications through the network simultaneously. It allows large-file transfers and bundled cable implementations for channels up to 100 meters. And, it can support high-end security applications and the distribution of digital audio and video. To illustrate its speed, via a 10Gb/s connection rate, downloading a typical DVD of about 3GB would take around just 24 seconds.

A lot of wireless used in residential applications is typically between 1-10Mb/s, with new wireless being around 50Mb/s, while 10Gb/s is currently ideal for commercial applications, as applications for the home rapidly progress, it seems 10Gb/s is well suited for future residential technology. To hook up High Definition Media Interface (HDMI), you need at least 5Gb/s for 1080 quality both of which are quickly becoming the benchmarks for any new TV purchase.

To handle this technology, there are two choices: fiber optics and copper. While fiber optics is preferred for government data transfers and commercial networks because of its secure lines and ability to cover large distances, copper remains more cost-effective, is equally suited to commercial and residential use, and makes up the last 100 meters of commercial networks. Also, copper can carry lower levels of power, enough to power security cameras, card readers or other devices in commercial and residential buildings.

Copper is cheaper and much easier to install. Copper mainly reaches 100 meters, and the extra distance fiber can offer is lost in residential settings. This technology is still pretty new. But already, we’re reaching milestones in commercial and also residential, success. Everything now is being built with 10Gb/s. So, despite the recession, the future is looking green.

Computer Chips

We are constantly finding new and inventive uses for copper – especially in technology. This is due to the fact that copper is one of the best conductors of electricity, making it heralded by all computer chip manufacturers. For many years no one was able to produce a marketable copper chip, but in the last few years chip technology has reached groundbreaking new levels. It is now possible for chip makers to use copper wires, rather than traditional aluminum interconnects, to link transistors in chips. IBM and Motorola plan to replace aluminum (Al) with copper (Cu) in the computer chips they manufacture. This breakthrough technology enables conductor channel lengths and widths to be significantly reduced. The result is much faster operating speeds and greater circuit integration – up to 200 million transistors can be packed onto a single chip.

Likewise in 2020 Nvidia Unveiled Its Next-Generation 7nm Ampere A100 GPU for Data Centers, which is Absolutely Massive = 7nm FinFET process and 54 billion transistors. As the NVidia CEO himself Jensen Huang revealed this GPU has a million drill holes. 30,000 components, 1 kilometer of traces and all its heat pipes are made of Copper.

Ampere will inevitably make its way into some of the best graphics cards and find a place on our GPU hierachy, the Nvidia A100, is a GPU designed primarily for the upcoming wave of exascale supercomputers and AI research. It’s the descendant of Nvidia’s existing line of Tesla V100 GPUs, and like Volta V100 we don’t expect to see A100 silicon in any consumer GPUs. Well, maybe a Titan card—Titan A100?—but I don’t even want to think about what such a card would cost, because the A100 is a behemoth of a chip.

Let’s start with what we know at a high level. First, the Nvidia A100 will pack a whopping 54 billion transistors, with a die size of 826mm square. GV100 for reference had 21.1 billion transistors in an 815mm square package, so the A100 is over 2.5 times as many transistors, while only being 1.3% larger. Nvidia basically couldn’t make a larger GPU, as the maximum reticle size for current lithography is around 850mm2. The increase in transistor count comes courtesy of TSMC’s 7nm FinFET process, which AMD, Apple, and others have been using for a while now. It’s a welcome and necessary upgrade to the aging 12nm process behind Volta.

Along with the monster GPU itself are six stacks of high-bandwidth memory (HBM2e), which provide 40GB of total memory capacity (up to 80 gigabytes (GB)), A100 delivers a world’s first GPU memory bandwidth of over 2TB/sec, as well as higher dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) utilization efficiency at 95%. A100 delivers 1.7X higher memory bandwidth over the previous generation. The Nvidia A100 isn’t just a huge GPU, it’s the fastest GPU Nvidia has ever created, and then some. Let me reiterate that this GPU is not going into GeForce any time soon. All of this is great news for supercomputer and High-Performance Computing (HPC) use, but it leaves us with very little information about Nvidia’s next generation Ampere GPUs for consumer cards. I know that Nvidia crammed in 2.5 times as many transistors in roughly the same die space, which means it could certainly do the same for consumer GPUs. The use of copper conductors in chips is the last link in a now unbroken copper chain comprising the electric data path between user and computer. From external cables and connectors to bus ways to printed circuit boards, sockets and leadframes, it’s all copper.

Copper and Cars

Copper is very important for cars too. For example, there’s more than 25kg of copper in a typical U.S.-built automobile: about 20kg for electrical and about 5kg for nonelectrical components. Today’s luxury cars, on average, contain some 1500 copper wires totaling about 1,6km in length, thanks to continuing improvements in electronics and the addition of power accessories. In 1948, the average family car contained only about 55 wires amounting to an average total length of 45 meters. Just as electronics and power accessories have improved – with a little help from copper – other automobile applications have begun experimenting and using copper-based products over others as well.

CuproBraze is the name of a new manufacturing process for copper-and-brass automotive radiators. The process uses fluxless, lead-free brazing, anneal resistant alloys and laser welding among other innovations to produce new thin-walled radiators that perform better than thicker-walled aluminum products. CuproBraze radiators are typically 30% to 40% lighter than traditional copper and brass models, can be made smaller than their aluminum counterparts, and can provide up to 30% less air-side pressure drop. The CuproBraze process also shortens manufacturing time, is environmentally-friendly and reduces production costs.

And by the way did you know… The body of the 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost is completely copper. Nearly all of the car’s engine hardware is solid brass. And, of course, it has a copper and brass radiator.

The Copper Comet Impactor: A NASA Success Story

In 2004 NASA was busy blasting a hole deep into a comet far out in space. The goal of the mission: To uncover valuable information about the nature and origins of Earth’s solar system. Launched on a clear winter day in January 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft spanned 268 million miles (431 million kilometers) of deep space in 172 days, then reached out and touched comet Tempel 1. The collision between the coffee table-sized impactor and city-sized comet occurred on July 4, 2005, at 1:52 a.m. EDT. This hyper-speed collision between spaceborne iceberg and copper-fortified, rocket-powered probe was the first of its kind. It was a boon to not only comet science, but to the study of the evolution of our solar system. 

The mission of Deep Impact was supposed to conclude within weeks of July 4 2005 cometary smackdown. Then, NASA approved a mission extension, re-enlisting the Deep Impact spacecraft for two distinct celestial targets of opportunity. EPOXI, as the mission was renamed, was a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The Deep Impact spacecraft, history’s most traveled deep-space comet hunter, provided many significant results for the science community.

One of mankind’s oldest metals played an integral part in this one-of-a-kind interplanetary pyrotechnics display. NASA scientists deployed a copper-topped probe called a “smart impactor” in a deliberate head-on collision with Comet Tempel 1. NASA’s Deep Impact mission was hailed as a dazzling success as more than 50 telescopes and 200 researchers around the world watched when the comet – traveling faster than a speeding bullet at 37,000km/h – collided with the probe. As planned, the impactor’s rounded copper front-end struck the comet’s nucleus on the side illuminated by the sun, causing a crater to form on the surface and dust, gas and other emissions to spew forth like a volcanic eruption. The explosion, equivalent to detonating 5 tons of dynamite, vaporized the impactor but did not drastically alter the trajectory of the Manhattan-sized comet.

Why Copper? Well…Copper, which made up half of the impactor’s total mass, was selected for this mission based on several key factors, including the hardness of the metal. To make the probe even stronger, the copper was fortified with 3% beryllium (Be). But it was copper’s molecular structure that made it ideally suited to gather data from the emissions that spewed forth from the comet after the collision. Because copper’s atomic structure reacts slowly with other elements – particularly the oxygen found in cometary water – burning copper emissions did not obscure spectroscopic images taken during the crash. Other materials, such as aluminum (Al), would have created distracting emissions and limited the effectiveness of the instrument used to monitor light reflecting from the comet.

NASA collected data from a safe distance 500km below the collision using the Deep Impact “flyby” spacecraft that carried the probe into space. The scientists had about 14 minutes to photograph the debris, using both optical and infrared imaging, until a blizzard of fallout from the comet blocked the spacecraft’s view. Images taken by the monitoring equipment were transmitted from the spacecraft via X-band communication. They can be viewed on NASA’s Deep Impact Web site.

Comets are almost as old as Earth and our neighboring planets. Scientists believe they are made of ice, gases, rocks and dust leftover from the formation of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. It will take many months before scientists have finished analyzing all the data, but they hope the debris ejected from the comet’s core will lead to a better understanding of how the solar system – including our own planet – was created.

Discovered over 10,000 years ago on earth, copper is prized for its beauty, strength, durability and ability to be combined or “alloyed” with other metals to create new metals like brass and bronze. In its pure or alloyed form, copper is an indispensable material used by NASA, the U.S. military and manufacturers in various industries including: appliances, computer technology, mobile phones, wind and solar energy, plumbing tube, building construction and interior design.

Copper: An Indispensible Ingredient for Wind Energy

Of all the various alternatives to fossil fuels such as ethanol, hydropower, and solar thermal energy, wind energy may have the longest history. People began to harness wind power for grinding grain and pumping water as early as the 3rd century B.C. With today’s high demand for low-carbon electricity, wind energy has found a new importance. Wind energy will surely be a part of the carbon-free energy future, and copper will play a large role in making that possible. Copper is indispensible to the proper functioning and efficiency of wind turbines. The metal plays a central role in the inner workings of the generator, grounds the towers from lightning strikes, and carries the electrical current where it needs to go. In addition, copper is one of the most recyclable metals available, which makes it well-suited to contribute to energy development that is environmentally friendly.

Inside the familiar white shell of a wind turbine, is where the spinning of the blades turn into the energy that we use. This work is done by an electrical generator that transforms the motion of the turbines into electricity. The copper in the generator helps turn the natural energy of wind into power that consumers can use and afford. Copper is the most cost efficient metal for generators because it is extremely conductive.

Copper also helps move the electricity along on its way to the consumer. After electricity is created in the generator, it travels through copper cables down to the base of the turbine, where it passes through switch gear on the way to a transformer. Each turbine has its own transformer; the electricity from each transformer passes along through more copper cables on its way to a common collector.

Copper has another ancillary contribution to wind power, it is used to ground wind turbines from lighting strikes. Since wind farms are typically located in wide-open areas, they are especially vulnerable to storms. The rotating blades are further subject to static electricity build-up. A copper wire in the blade is used to dissipate this energy.

Not only does copper play an important role in this sustainable energy technology, it is a sustainable material itself, and is often referred to as the most recyclable metal. Manufacturing copper products is also energy efficient, the carbon output required to produce copper for a single wind turbine is offset in 3-5 days by the very same wind turbine and a generator made of copper can have a life span of up to 15 years. These are significant benefits in the development of renewable energy. Copper is an essential element in making wind a feasible energy source. It has played a significant role in the history of industry and will continue to be indispensible to energy production in the future.

Can Copper Reduce Dependency on Rare Earth Elements?

The growing demand for rare earth elements is creating a number of environmental, geopolitical, social and technical challenges. And copper could really help address them. Copper benefits from good and well-distributed global availability, well-established mining techniques, a relatively stable price, a transparent global market pricing mechanism and sustainable recycling processes. This makes it an interesting alternative to rare earth elements (REEs) for rotating machines. While the share of usage of REEs in this application is currently modest, it is growing fast. As such, copper is one of the answers to reducing the EU’s dependency on REEs. There are 17 REEs found in the earth’s crust. These are:

  1. Scandium (Sc)
  2. Yttrium (Y)
  3. Lanthanum (La)
  4. Cerium (Ce)
  5. Praseodymium (Pr)
  6. Neodymiun (Nd)
  7. Promethium (Pm)
  8. Samarium (Sm)
  9. Europium (Eu)
  10. Gadolinium (Gd)
  11. Terbium (Tb)
  12. Dysprosium (Dy)
  13. Holmium (Ho)
  14. Erbium (Er)
  15. Thulium (Tm)
  16. Ytterbium (Yb)
  17. Lutetium (Lu)

Their unique magnetic properties make them a key component of many 21st century technologies such as smartphones, hard drives, electric vehicles and wind turbines. An iPhone, for example, contains 8 of them. REEs are essential, and in great and growing demand. Therefore, the the EU is working to improve access to these metals, reduce their consumption and improve extraction conditions in Europe to address existing concerns related to their supply, recycling and price evolution.

Copper as an alternative.

For many of the applications mentioned, there are currently no straightforward alternatives. However, for the growing use of rare earth materials in rotating machines (used in, for example, electric vehicles and wind turbines), there is copper.

The majority of motors in electric vehicles currently rely on permanent magnet technology using rare earth magnets. Permanent magnet technology offers advantageous technical features, but there are also technical drawbacks, such as  the demagnetisation risk if the temperature of the motor exceeds a certain limit. Adding these technical drawbacks to the overall challenges of REEs has led to new interest in developing alternative technologies that do not use permanent magnets.

One such project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, is called ReFreeDrive (Rare Earth Free Drive) launched on 1st October 2017. It is looking to improve two motor technologies beyond the current state-of-the-art: copper-rotor induction and synchronous reluctance. The improvement will take place at several levels: motor design, materials formulation (steel and copper) and use of advanced technologies for wiring.

The project also addresses the design of power electronics using wide bandgap semiconductors, and of the control system, including battery charging functions. Two power levels are being analysed–75 kW and 200 kW–for their further prototyping, testing and integration on one EV vehicle. This power range covers a significant share of road and goods carrying vehicles.

In the field of wind energy, direct-drive generators equipped with full power converters are emerging as a leading technology option, since they avoid the use of gearboxes (which are the number one source of outages and frequent maintenance) and optimise the overall operation of the wind turbine. This technology is largely based on generators using permanent magnets. There exists, however, a copper-based alternative using excitation technology that skips the use of rare-earths, while taking full advantage of direct-drive benefits. It is currently used by a limited number of manufacturers, but it could be adopted more broadly.

What are the advantages of copper?

There are many advantages of using copper, but the main ones very important to be mentioned are the following big 4:

1: Good and well-distributed global availability = >The supply of copper is well distributed: Chile (28%), Peru (12%), China (9%), and the US (7%) are the 4 top worldwide producers. Data has been collected on copper reserves for a long time, and it shows reserves are plentiful.

2: Mature mining technology => Most copper is mined by large, international companies adhering to strict safety and environmental standards. They use a mix of well-established open pit and underground mining technologies.

3: Economic stability => Copper operates on an open market with balanced supply and demand. Demand for primary copper in the EU is around 4.2 million tonnes per year. 37% of this need is covered through imports, 18% through copper production in Europe (Poland, Sweden mainly) and around 45% through recycling. Consequently, the EU has a manageable exposure to raw material imports in this sector and is at the forefront of the circular economy for this metal.

4: Sustainability => Copper can be recycled without loss of properties, and recycling is performed in economically stable and value-adding ways. Copper is also a carrier metal for many valuable substances such as tin (Sn), nickel (Ni), molybdenum (Mo), lead (Pb), cobalt (Co), precious metals, rare earths, sulphuric acid and final slags.

Among its many advantages Copper also has some drawbacks too. Because is a very good thermal and electrical conductor this make it highly reflective and therefore cannot be properly used for Additive Manufacturing. At least not wasn´t until now.

Copper used for Additive Manufacturing

The Problem with Copper = > Copper has exceptional electrical and thermal conductivity, making it ideal for heat exchangers, induction coils, electronics, and even rocket engine parts. Unfortunately, these properties also make it difficult to process for use in additive manufacturing. Powder bed fusion is the leading technology in metal additive manufacturing. It uses standard lasers to fuse powdered metals into three-dimensional objects. However, copper is extremely reflective in precisely the same range of wavelengths as these lasers. Consequently, only a small part of the laser’s energy is absorbed by the copper, resulting in low-density printed parts. The equipment used in the process could be adapted – at great effort and expense – but it often does not deliver enough energy to the material to reform it into denser components. Alternatively, less conductive copper alloys could be used, but this is not always ideal.

Additive manufacturing has been a revelation for many industries. It gives designers and engineers the ability to produce complex shapes and customized items on demand in a more sustainable and less wasteful manufacturing process. The process involves printing an item layer by layer, using a feedstock such as plastic or metals like titaniumsteel, and aluminum. However, not all metals are suitable. For example, pure copper is challenging due to its high reflectivity.

Yet things can change for copper very soon. In February 2021 the researchers from the Uppsala University in Sweden in collaboration with graphene materials company Graphmatech, (a Swedish company develops next-generation materials tailor-made with graphene) demonstrated a method for lowering the reflectivity of copper powder.

The work could lead to more densely printed parts through laser additive manufacturing (AM). Copper poses certain challenges in the context of AM; at the wavelengths commonly used in laser powder bed fusion, which is the most common technique in metal AM, only a small portion of the energy is absorbed by the material, which results in low-density printed parts.

With Graphmatech’s technology, the researchers were able to modify the surface of the copper powder to reduce the reflectance by up to 67%. They have shown that it is possible to improve copper powders’ processability while also enhancing the resulting printed parts’ properties. They have lowered the reflectivity of copper powder and improved its printability for laser additive manufacturing, resulting in more densely printed parts. The researchers used Graphmatech’s Aros Graphene, a unique hybrid material that keeps graphene flakes separate while they are distributed into other materials, allowing it to retain many of the graphene’s useful properties. Copper powder was coated in the graphene, which is eco-friendly, cost-effective, and scalable.

A newly introduced graphene coating significantly lowered the reflectivity of the copper powder.

By coating the surface of the copper powder with graphene, the powder surface characteristics — morphology, conductivity, roughness — are altered, changing the way the laser light interacts with the surface, and improving the absorption properties. The graphene was also able to survive the printing process, which positively affected the density of the printed copper-graphene parts by making them less porous. The new process developed to coat metal powder with graphene opens up very interesting perspectives for the design of new materials in various applications. With electrification currently going on at all car OEMs , the demand for copper has gone up significantly. By reinforcing copper with graphene technology, this demand can be alleviated. Not only could our composites mean less material would be needed for the same technical performance, but we can also boost the properties of other (less finite or energy intensive) materials to potentially substitute copper and other materials in a range of industrial applications.

The technology may also be able to reduce carbon emissions, and has the potential to positively affect a number of potential applications, including e-mobility, electronics and defense. Copper is intensively used in automotive parts and electronics (as well as many other industrial applications) due to its ductility and high conductivity. But because of the issues with reflectivity, it has been extremely challenging to manufacture parts via Additive Manufacturing. As a result, copper parts are often produced through methods that are more energy intensive, are less efficient, and offer less flexibility in design. Improving the processability of copper with the graphene technology may be able to increase production and reduce waste, enable the 3D printing of copper on a range of common 3D printers, and produce components that are potentially stronger, thinner, and more conductive than pure copper, as well as saving on weight and cost.

The development of any new material or technology tends to pose a number of challenges, though as of yet, the researchers haven’t identified any drawbacks. Graphmatech is now working to scale up the technology, and has already reported advances in a number of applications. They are working with industrial partners not only on a wide portfolio of coated metal powders, but also on metal composites, polymer composites, and energy storage or battery applications. In each case, the graphene is incorporated and tuned according to application and the customers’ needs — whether they be improved processability for metallurgy with better-flowing powders, or improved strength, wear resistance or conductivity in plastics or rubbers, or higher-density energy storage.The excellent corrosion resistance and anti-bacterial properties of copper are also a big potential added to functionalities with the technology. Other applications include more efficient, sustainable manufacturing, lightweight but strong automotive and aerospace parts, and lighter and more efficient electronics.

“Better” Copper Means Higher-Efficiency Electric Motors

Copper can be made even more highly efficient metal. Recently researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have managed to increase the conductivity of copper wire by about 5%. That may seem like a small amount but it can make a big difference in motor efficiency. Higher conductivity also means that less copper is needed for the same efficiency, which can reduce the weight and volume of various components that are expected to power our future electric vehicles.

In 2020 the laboratory teamed with General Motors to test out the souped-up copper wire for use in vehicle motor components. As part of a cost-shared research project, the team validated the increased conductivity and found that it also has higher ductility—the ability to stretch farther before it breaks. In other physical properties, it behaved just like regular copper so it can be welded and subjected to other mechanical stresses with no degradation of performance. This means that no specialized manufacturing methods are necessary to assemble motors—only the new advanced PNNL copper composite. The technology can apply to any industry that uses copper to move electrical energy, including power transmission, electronics, wireless chargers, electric motors, generators, under-sea cables, and batteries. Using a new, patented and patent pending manufacturing platform developed at PNNL researchers added graphene—a highly conductive, nano-thin sheet of carbon atoms—to copper and produced wire. The increase in conductivity compared to pure copper is made possible by a first-of-its-kind machine that combines and extrudes metal and composite materials, including copper.

The PNNL’s ShAPE™ process can improve the performance of materials extruded through the process. ShAPE stands for Shear Assisted Processing and Extrusion. Oppositional, or shear, force is applied by rotating a metal or composite as it is pushed through a die to create a new form. This novel, energy efficient approach creates internal heating by deforming the metal, which softens it and allows it to form into wires, tubes, and bars.

The benefit of adding graphene to copper has been investigated before, but these efforts have primarily focused on thin films or layered structures that are extremely costly and time consuming to make. The ShAPE process is the first demonstration of considerable conductivity improvement in a copper-graphene composites made by a truly scalable process. The charge: high-conductivity metals for electric vehicles.

According to a 2018 U.S. Department of Energy report on electric vehicles, There is a need for improved motor efficiency to increase power density for electric vehicles. Additionally, components need to fit within increasingly smaller spaces available in the vehicle. But reducing motor volume is limited by the materials used in current electric vehicles and electrical conductivity limitations of copper windings.

Adding graphene to copper has proved difficult because the additives do not blend uniformly, creating clumps and pore spaces within the structure. But the ShAPE process eliminates pore spaces while also distributing the additives within the metal uniformly, which may be the reason for improved electrical conductivity. ShAPE’s uniform dispersion of the graphene is the reason only really tiny amounts of additive are needed—about 6 parts per million of graphene flakes—to get a substantial improvement of 5% in conductivity. Other methods require large quantities of graphene, which is very expensive to make, and still have not approached the high conductivity as demonstrated at a bulk scale.

General Motors Research and Development engineers verified the higher conductivity copper wire can be welded, brazed, and formed in exactly the same way as conventional copper wire. This indicates seamless integration with existing motor manufacturing processes. To further lightweight motors, advances in materials is the new paradigm. Higher conductivity copper could be a disruptive approach to lightweighting and/or increasing efficiency for any electric motor or wireless vehicle charging system. ShAPE™ is part of PNNL’s suite of solid phase processing solutions for industry. The ShAPE technology has of course the potential of use for additional applications of high conductivity metals too. See how it works in the emmbedded video as follows.:

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