Can Aluminum Become a Conductive Alternative to Copper?

Researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are working on increasing the conductivity of aluminum. Their experiments, if successful could lead to an alternative that is economical competitive to copper.

Aluminum is generally cheaper, lighter, and easier to find than copper. So, if aluminum is made more conductive, maybe almost as conductive as copper, the red metal could be replaced.

Copper is a great conductor of electricity, used in everything from electronics and transmission lines to electrical vehicles (EVs). Copper is becoming pricier and driven by demand for EVs and constraints on supply. Aluminum is one-third the price of copper but only 60% as conductive, and its relatively low conductivity has thus far placed limits on its usage.

Keerti Kappagantula, PNNL Materials Scientist commented on this ground-breaking research:

“Conductivity is key because a lighter weight wire with equivalent conduction can be used to design lighter motors and other electrical components, so your vehicle can potentially go longer distances. Everything from a car’s electronics to energy generation to transmitting that energy to your home via the grid to charge your car’s battery—anything that runs on electricity—it can all become more efficient.”

To tackle the conductivity problem Kappagantula and his colleagues identified the effects of temperature and structural defects in aluminum and develop an atom-by-atom method to increase its conductivity. The team adapted concepts developed from semiconductor research and simulated what would happen to aluminum’s conductivity if atoms in its structure were removed or rearranged. These structural changes fostered great increases in the metal’s conductivity.

With a clear theory in-tow the researchers will work on increasing the conductivity of aluminum in the lab to match their simulations with real-life results. Perhaps its possible to increase the conductivity of other metals using the same simulations.

The research was supported through the Hydro-Innovation and Technology-ENA and the National Science Foundation. Development efforts to apply the results to specific energy applications are sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing and Vehicle Technologies Offices.

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