back to article Copper shortage keeps green energy, tech ventures grounded

In a world ever more hungry for copper, a looming shortage could end green energy transition plans before they even get off the ground. Copper is so central to transitioning from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, says a report from S&P Global, that worldwide demand is likely to double by 2035 from 25 million metric tons to …

  1. cyberdemon Silver badge
    Devil

    Bloody batteries and solar panels

    Other technologies can make efficient use of copper, but batteries and solar panels cannot.

    The reason is voltage: High voltage equipment only needs a small amount of current to transfer a high power, lower voltage systems need more current, and power losses due to resistive heating in the copper wire go as the square of current (I^2 R).

    Lithium battery cells only produce about 4 volts, and solar cells only produce 1 volt. To have more volts, you need more cells in series i.e. more points-of-failure in series, so high-voltage batteries and high-voltage solar panels are unreliable, because one failure in a string of 1000 series-connected cells will disable the whole string. So batteries and solar cells tend to operate at low voltages and high currents, i.e. they need lots and lots of copper.

    If I want to make a 10kW solar panel, I could either use 1000 cells in series at 10A, or 100 cells in series at 100A. The latter is 10 times more reliable, by some reliability metric. But it requires 10 times more copper to push 10kW around at 100A with the same losses than it does to push the same 10kW around 10A.

    So either I go for low-reliability, or use more copper to reduce the resistance.

    Motors, transformers and generators on the other hand, don't have electrochemical or photovoltaic cells in series, they just have longer coils of wire to generate higher voltages. It's easy to make a high voltage generator or transformer, we just need good insulation, and that insulation doesn't really degrade much with time, provided it is kept at a sensible temperature. The reliability of motors and transformers scales much better with voltage than it does for batteries and solar cells.

    Batteries also have the problem of balancing of course. so the more cells in series, the more that small variations in cell capacity will reduce the overall capacity: Because the whole series string takes the same current, and if any one cell goes below 2V or above 4.4V, the whole pack is in serious trouble.

    The next problem I can see with copper, is low-voltage (240V) local power distribution. Again, losses go as I^2 R, and the cable under my road is rated for 400 Amps. One electric shower is 40A, one EV charger is 40A, and one heat pump is 40A. But my street has 30 houses, so the underground cable regularly overheats and fails. (and while doing so, it is incredibly inefficient)

    As the cable is overloaded, it heats up, and the power lost in the cable goes with the square of current as voltage is lost across the cable resistance. So when I turn my shower on, the lights dim slightly as the voltage drops.

    If I bothered to, I could even measure this voltage drop and calculate the resistance (and the power loss) in the local mains distribution. But on average it is around 15% just for the last leg between the 11kV-240V substation and your house.

    The kicker is that any electronic DC-DC load such as a computer, battery charger, or "inverter" appliance will automatically draw more current as the input voltage drops. This leads to exploding underground cables because as the voltage drops due to overload, the DC-DC regulator tries to keep a constant power, which leads to more current, and remember losses go as I^2 R. Even R is not constant, it goes up with temperature.

    So TLDR, expect power cuts on Monday and Tuesday as more people fire up their air con units. Grid transformers may overheat. We may also run out of cooling water for some power stations too.

    </doom>

    1. Notas Badoff

      Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

      Down votes without enlightening comments demonstrate pique power?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        Obviously the down votes are for the "Wrong Type Of Physics"

        Some people cannot accept facts - plain and simple but sadly true !

      2. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        Yes indeed, I assume I have piqued their rage by pointing out some of the glaring flaws in the renewable energy groupthink. No, Heat Pumps, EVs and renewables are NOT going to save us. But they are a great moneyspinner for some shifty air conditioning salesmen and biomass lumberjacks. Heat pumps are literally just air conditioners that can run backwards. If we install 300,000 heat pumps per year, that means we are also installing 300,000 high-powered air con units into badly-insulated houses. And the weather is getting hotter. What could possibly go wrong with that eco-idea? Last decade if I had an air conditioner I would have been a social piranha; people would tell me that I am selfishly ruining the planet for my own comfort. But now, I can just write "heat pump" on it with a marker pen and suddenly I'm an eco-hero?

        In some ways, I wish that the Lithium Battery had never been invented. It gives us a false hope. People seem to think that we can continue our post-1980s consumption unabated, all we have to do is build more windmills and solar panels and store the energy in batteries to keep the lights on. But unfortunately it's simply not possible to store Terawatt-hours (the UK uses approximately 5 TWh per week, and we have had periods of calm weather where we have used 18TWh of gas before the wind started blowing again). Even if there were no shortage of copper and you could divert all the world's battery factories to making batteries for the UK, it would take decades to build a battery big enough to replace gas here for a week. But as TFA says, copper is limited, (so is Cobalt, and Lithium too because it takes a massive amount of water to extract, as does silicon wafer manufacture for solar panels) so the whole battery-revolution is doomed. Sorry Britishvolt et al, but you were sold a lie. The UK can never be self-sufficient in battery manufacturing, cos we need raw materials innit (and also labour here is terribly expensive compared to China)

        The only thing that grid batteries are good for, is stabilising the frequency in the very short term i.e. over the order of seconds to provide something similar to the stored inertia in a flywheel, as a replacement for the mass of spinning turbines that we have lost with solar panels etc. They cannot be used for bulk storage.

        All this stuff about electrifying everything, carbon capture, the hydrogen economy, liquid ammonia storage, CO2 batteries, is pure greenwash and bollocks of the highest order. It is only good for one thing: Making a few rich people richer as they cream off from all the government and industry incentives for green tech. They are as much good as a shady one-man company in Norfolk company selling £meelions of useless or nonexistent PPE to Matt Hancock.

        Biomass is deforestation. Biofuel farms and Solar panels are springing up on land that could be used to grow food crops. Captured CO2 will escape (and suffocate swaths of people/animals/fish when it does). The only sensible way to capture carbon is to let the forests grow, not to chop them down.

        Thus, the only way we are going to get to net zero, is to change our consumption habits (i.e. everyone has to live where we work, and forget about the luxury of always-on electricity, and put some wooly jumpers on in the winter) or else we have to reduce our population. Both of those options mean, shock horror, that "economic growth" has to go in reverse for a few decades. Otherwise the planet is fucked. But then again, that's never going to happen so most likely we're already fucked. Only a massive population crash due to nuclear war has a chance to save the planet now. Anyone for cheese & biscuits? Who'd like to buy some weapons?

        1. Filippo Silver badge

          Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

          Just saying, but nuclear power stations produce reliable, stable power, with no CO2 emissions. They do have other significant issues, but I'd gladly take them over WW3 over ever-dwindling resources.

          1. cyberdemon Silver badge
            Mushroom

            Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

            Indeed. But sadly, even nuclear power is not able to work in an apocalyptic drought scenario (at least not in its usual configuration, which uses evaporative cooling towers) https://www.energylivenews.com/2022/07/18/is-heatwave-putting-strain-on-nuclear-power/

            IMO, we should be building nuclear reactors underwater.

            Less requirement on shielding and aircraft-collision protection (which is one of the biggest costs for the EPR design) and a whole ocean of free cooling water.

      3. Crypto Monad

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        > Down votes without enlightening comments demonstrate pique power?

        Very clever. Have a comment anyway.

        I've just had domestic solar installed. There are two "strings", with 6 and 8 panels in series. The voltages are around 200V and 270V per string, and a peak current of around 12A, so the ohmic losses are no greater than regular domestic wiring. There are 'optimisers' fitted to each panel to ensure that if one panel reduces capacity, it does not affect the others.

        I can tell you that the copper wiring between the panels and the inverter did not make up a significant part of the system cost.

        No doubt the inverter and batteries, and even the panels themselves, have some copper inside them. That cost is hidden, but again I think the amounts are small.

        Electric motors in EVs though - that's a different matter.

        1. adam 40 Silver badge

          Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

          When you are paying sensible amounts for your PV installation, the wiring does become a noticeable fraction.

          I paid around £600 for 10 panels and an inverter, good for around 2kW.

          Cable cost me around £24, which is 4%.

          But if you paid (I am guessing) £3000, the cable costs are in the 1% area, not noticeable.

    2. Totally not a Cylon Silver badge

      Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

      Your heat pump current draw is way high; which also throws doubt on your other figures.

      To match the BTUs of my current gas boiler a heat pump in my average sized house in Southern England would draw 2kW at worst efficency and just over 1kW at best.

      Don't confuse breaker rating with actual current draw which will be much lower.

      1. ClockworkOwl

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        I'm confused, most heat pumps have a COP around 4 at maximum. Are you sure your boiler is only 4Kw? Most are over 20Kw...

        My current boiler is 27Kw, in order to replace it in direct thermal energy terms, would probably require a 7-8Kw heat pump, which is close to the 40A breaker. It wouldn't need to be run at full whack most of the time, but when it's very cold outside, the COP also falls, so needs the ability to pump a lot of heat.

        Obviously, in the real world a whole lot of other mediations will need to be taken. Like improving insulation, bigger radiators for lower temp. running etc...

        Thermodynamics is always king, (even for you Maxwell's Demon!)

      2. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        I guess it depends on the size of the heat pump. You're right though, 40A is a bit big for a domestic heat pump, in terms of continuous rating.

        My gas boiler is 20kW and so I was assuming a 10kW motor in the heat pump.

        I'm pretty sure you can't match a 20kW boiler with 1-2kW input, that would imply a CoP of 10-20, would it not?

        A 10kW electric shower which draws 10kW at 240V draws 41.6 A - i'm not sure how you can cast doubt on that. If the voltage drops, it will draw less current (39.9 A) because it is a resistive load.

        Whereas a 10kW EV charger is a constant power device. It will draw (for example) 41.6A at 240V, but if the voltage drops, that input current goes up not down - at 230V it will increase its currrent draw to 43.5A, to put the same 10kW into the battery. Of course it will not increase past its own rated input current, it will have to put less than 10kW into the battery or stop charging if the mains input drops too far.

        Computers are the same. If you drop the AC input voltage from 240 to 220V, the computer will stay running, but the AC mains input current will increase to keep the power constant, because the load on the DC side hasn't changed. Most modern computer PSUs these days are wide-input-range, they will carry on working all the way from 100V to 300V input, the current changes to keep the power constant.

        My argument is, that having a large portion of constant-power loads (such as computers, EVs, and inverter-driven compressors) on an ageing distribution network produces a slight positive-feedback effect, whereby excessive load causes a voltage drop, which causes the load current to increase, which increases the heating in the cables (by a square factor), and also causes more voltage drop.

        TFA is about copper, not heat pumps or switched-mode PSUs. But I think if we are going to decomission two out of three of our energy distribution networks (gas and petroleum) and replace it all with electricity, then we are going to need to do a lot more to increase the capacity of the electric grid. That either means using a LOT more copper, to uprate the cables under the road from 400A to 1000A, or we will have to reduce the length of the low voltage transmission leg i.e. everyone gets 11kV pylons and a transformer outside their house, like wot they do in 'murica.

    3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Mode of failure

      Xmas tree lights are wired in series. If any one of them fails to open circuit the entire chain goes dark. If one of them fails to short circuit each of the remaining bulbs shine a little brighter - and age a little more quickly.

      If instead we wired Xmas lights in parallel a failure of one to open circuit just reduces the power draw and total brightness. A failure to short circuit has more interesting possibilities but hopefully just results in a blown fuse and darkness.

      If you wanted to wire a large number of solar cells in parallel the obvious solution would be to use a layer of solar cells with one terminal connected to a sheet of steel full of holes. Connect the other terminal of each cell with fuse wire through a hole to a second sheet of steel.

      1. Persona Silver badge

        Re: Mode of failure

        In utility scale solar farms they run the cells in strings to get high voltage output. Some as high as 1.5kV though normally less. This saves copper/losses and reduces the number of electronic units needed to export the power. They wouldn't be doing this if it caused severe reliability issues.

      2. cyberdemon Silver badge

        Re: Mode of failure

        Yes, we could wire xmas lights in parallel, but then the whole string would operate at about 2V i.e. the voltage of one LED or fairy-light bulb, so to get a resonably bright string (lets say we want 5 watts), you'd need a lot of copper, because that's 2.5A, and the power loss in the wire goes with the square of that current.

        If you string them all in series then you will get failures taking down the whole string, so it's less reliable, but it's much cheaper because you can use thinner wire.

        Steel has a horrendously high resistance compared to copper. If you wanted to wire solar cells in parallel, even for a few kilowatts, you'd need thousands of amps and so you'd easily melt your steel sheet. Commercially viable solar farms operate in the tens of megawatts.

        Of course in industry there is a balance between cost and reliability, because at the end of the day, poor reliability is just extra cost. Not so much for christmas lights though, if they fail then the consumer buys a new one.

        Commercial solar farms do indeed run at thousands of volts i.e. thousands of cells in series. But they then connect multiple series strings in parallel, so that one cell failure would only take out a small portion of their capacity (but it still disables a whole string of 1000+ cells)

    4. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

      Copper is about practicality. Aluminum is a reactive metal encased in a durable oxide layer. Whether you use clamps, solder, or welding, aluminum electrical connections are difficult. Electrical grids can use it because giant clamps that occasionally become hot or throw sparks are fine. A momentary 3kW loss in a 1MW cable. It doesn't scale down well.

      Copper clad aluminum solves some problems but, in my experience, it's very brittle. It breaks at every connection.

      1. Bitsminer Bronze badge

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        A couple of neighbouring businesses lost all their copper pipes and wires to thieves a few years back.

        Their offices had outdoor plumbed pipes and wiring in conduit. One night it all got stolen; the local metal recyclers had no obligation to verify ownership or record the "identities" of people trading old pipe for cash.

        It's a bit hard to run your dental business without lights or water!

        And often you see municipal and regional infrastructure labelled with "contains aluminum wire" signs.

    5. Martin an gof Silver badge

      Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

      cable under my road is rated for 400 Amps. One electric shower is 40A, one EV charger is 40A, and one heat pump is 40A. But my street has 30 houses, so the underground cable regularly overheats and fails

      If it does so then that's something your local company needs to sort. It's not quite as bad as it sounds though - you make it sound as if each house needs 120A constantly and there's only 400A to go around.

      Firstly, that 400A cable (assuming you are correct on that) is three-phase, and each house only takes one, so that's 10 houses (roughly), not 30. This means a fairly normal 40A capacity per house, though some installations can be higher. The calculation / risk is that no-one will be using all their allocation all the time, so it doesn't matter if they take more than 40A some of the time, and it's likely that the houses have 80A main fuses, possibly 60A. Some modern installations will have 100A fuses.

      Secondly, the electric shower is a very short-term load and won't be exactly 40A. Common shower powers in the UK are 7.5kW, 8.5kW (both likely fused at 40A but drawing approx 32A and 37A at 230V) and 9.5kW and 10.5kW which will be fused at 50A and draw approximately 41A and 46A. Certainly for the 50A devices the installing electrician is required to ensure that the supply is capable and to do so a "maximum demand and diversity" calculation will have been made.

      Shower loads are resistive and so very voltage-dependent - as the voltage drops, so will the power produced and the current draw.

      The car charger, I don't really know as I don't have one. Those I have seen are 7kW, fused at 32A, not 40A and even if the thing is a typical switch-mode PSU and tries to draw more current as the voltage drops, it won't take much before the MCB pops - MCBs are not voltage-dependent. If the problem is structural outside your house then it will affect everyone else and such a condition is also likely to pop the fuse at the transformer. If this isn't happening - which it seems not to be if the cable is catching fire - then as I said, something bigger is wrong. Around here I would expect Western Power Distribution to be on the case fairly rapidly as they have been for other issues.

      The heat pump has already been discussed by others, but I can see how a large installation might need a 10kW device - especially if you include the resistive heaters usually fitted to the hot water storage - but a note for those people currently running 35kW or 40kW "combi" boilers, heat pumps do not attempt to replace those; much less than that is needed by the space heating in most houses. A combi boiler needs that amount of power in order to produce decent quantities of hot water, "instantaneously". Heat pumps heat and store hot water in a cylinder, meaning less instant heat power is required, but it's needed over a longer period.

      However none of these things is a constant load, all day, every day. Just because you take a ten-minute shower at 7am, it doesn't mean that all 9 of your same-phase neighbours are doing the same. This is the "diversity" I mentioned. On a smaller scale it's how you can connect an electric cooker to a 32A (7kW) circuit when it probably has 3kW + 2kW + 2Kw +1kW of hob, 2kW of oven, maybe 2kW of grill and a 13A socket outlet at the switch - if you add all that up, it comes to a potential draw of 15kW which is 65A! Thermostatic controls and the way the oven is used mean this never happens in practice so the diversity calculation for an oven (from memory because I don't have the book to hand) is something like:

      10A + 30% of remaining load + 5A if a socket is fitted

      Using that on the above example (52A cooker + 13A socket) gives a diversified load of 10A + 30% of 42A + 5A = 27.6A, well within the 32A allowed.

      M.

      1. cyberdemon Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: Bloody batteries and solar panels

        Yes I am aware of the diversity argument. If I was using 30kW (120A) then I would blow the main 100A fuse. I live in an old house in Southampton, it's fairly typical for the area, electricity was retrofitted to the house some time in the 1920s-30s, and it has a 100A fuse, which probably wouldn't blow until a few minutes at 120A (as I understand it, fuses are only guaranteed NOT to blow at their rated current, and typically blow significantly higher - they are only there to protect the wiring from catching fire. MCBs are different of course) and the demand is unlikely to stay that high for that long.

        Showers are indeed resistive (as I mentioned :P), and their usage is pretty intermittent - they are only used for 5-20 mins at a time, depending on who's in them, and it's unlikely that everyone on the road will step into the shower at the exact same time.

        Heat pumps and EVs on the other hand, draw power for hours at a time, and tend to go on and off demand at the same times. So the diversity argument doesn't necessarily save us.

        But yeah I don't know how the phases are split, if there's single-phase down each side or three-phase, but the wiring is ancient. It is single-core (concentric) i.e. the shield is neutral. Looks like a paper-insulated cable going into my old bakolite 100A fuse (and from there to my old bakolite electro-mechanical meter which you can pry from my cold, dead hands, metaphorically speaking.)

        But my main argument is: Even when the cable or transformer isn't exploding, it IS getting hot and wasting energy. It's not MY energy its wasting, because its upstream of the meter, but it is the reason why local low voltage distribution is so lossy compared to HV transmission. If my lights go slightly-but-noticeably dim when I turn the kettle on, then I could take a voltmeter and make a good guess at the internal resistance of the mains supply at the distribution board, and thus estimate the off-meter losses caused by that extra 3kW kettle load. If that resistance changes over time, then it's probably due to the changing temperature of the cables/joints/transformer windings.

      2. cyberdemon Silver badge
        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: How's this for your diversity argument btw:

          Yes I saw that article. Didn't read the comments which I see have now reached 149!

          You don't need a "smart" thermostat to cause a "sudden jump in electricity use right before residents wake up". Bog standard thermostats and boiler timers have done exactly the same thing since people started fitting them 50+ years ago.

          Similar jumps happen predictably at various points through the day - the famed Corrie pick-up (very old link) for example - and the UK grid has been dealing with it essentially for ever. If the US grid (the subject of the research) is having problems, perhaps they could have a chat.

          M.

  2. DJO Silver badge

    Meanwhile

    Another story in another place:

    "Copper price at lowest level since 2020 as fears over global economy grow"

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jul/15/copper-price-at-lowest-level-since-2020-as-fears-over-global-economy-grow-inflation

    Might be a good time to stockpile copper if you have a few £million and a warehouse standing idle.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Meanwhile

      Wasn't some American buying $M of Copper cents from the US mint - because the copper is worth more than the face value ?

      Then they introduced a law making it illegal to "deface" ie melt down, currency

      1. PRR Bronze badge

        Re: Meanwhile

        > cents from the US mint - because the copper is worth more than the face value ?

        No. And not made illegal. The Zinc mines have political clout. Any time a penny gets close to worth melting-down, we put more Zinc in it.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Meanwhile

          The US mint says it is illegal as of 2007

      2. theAltoid

        Re: Meanwhile

        US pennies are only copper clad (2.5%). The inside in zinc.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Going nowhere chop-chop

    Those requirements — 24kg --> 60kg / 139 kg / 425kg — mean you would have to chop up and recycle several ICE cars to make one new EV car?

    That'd mean an American family would have to downsize to just the one new car by trading in all the others? How many old tuk-tuks to make one new tuk-tuk?

    You know that old joke about Soviet Russia and new cars? The one that ends with the line "The plumber is coming in the morning" ? Will those be lead pipes or wooden?

  4. YetAnotherXyzzy

    A healthy reminder that everything involves trade offs. To protect our environment (and we should), we'll need to open more copper mines, which are understandably not popular with eco campaigners. If we let the perfect be the enemy of the good we'll never make any progress.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      >we'll need to open more copper mines...

      And the one thing missing from the article is the size of the known copper reserves...

      As this is an ore with a long history of usage and value, it is unlikely that there are massive unknown copper deposits in the way we discover deposits of rare earth metals in the spoil heaps of other mining activities.

      One of the things that irritate me is the waste of copper (and other metals such as gold). We've become so good at optimising usage that there is now very little actual metal: Gold is now just a few microns on the contacts (which themselves have shrunk over the years), the amount of copper in a metre of Cat6 is very small and to get at it you have to strip away a substantial amount of typically fire retarded protective PVC. Not surprisingly much now gets thrown in the general waste rather than (the more costly to dispose of) cable waste.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        The thing about gold is that up until about 50 years agom gold was regarded as persistent, i.e. not actually consumed. You would always be able to melt and reuse a very high percentage of the gold coinage and jewellery that it was used in.

        Since we started putting it into electronic devices, it's become a consumable, very difficult to recover, partly because of it being a noble metal, but mainly because in each device, a very small amount is actually present, making recovery uneconomical. But the number of devices is huge, so the amount of gold consumed ends up being considerable.

        I know that there are efforts being made to recover rare earth and precious metals from some electronic devices, but a huge amount will still end up in landfill.

        Copper is actually easier to recycle. For things like cable with near pure copper in it, you just throw it into a furnace. The insulation burns away (and the fumes must be filtered, of course), but you end up with mostly molten copper that can then be re-refined. Things like copper clad aluminium, steel armored copper cable, and devices were copper is integrated into the manufacturer of a device (like a motor), as well as when copper is used in an alloy (like brass) are more challenging.

  5. Spherical Cow

    That's a lot

    425kg of copper in one vehicle! Presumably that vehicle is a truck, because it just doesn't sound reasonable for a family car to have to lug around nearly half a tonne of copper.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: That's a lot

      My middle son works rebuilding steam locomotives, and they recently had a copper firebox custom made for a rebuild they were doing.

      It was a huge lump of crafted copper weighing over half a tonne, which he said was worth tens of thousands of pounds (but that was probably the manufactured price), and was kept under strict security until they fitted it. Half a tonne of copper is a lot of metal!

  6. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    "may emerge as a key destabilizing threat to international security."

    I wonder how much of that copper is tied up in stockpiles of bullet and shell casings? Or scattered around e.g. the Donbas region?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3KPVnM4cPI

  7. Ashto5

    BT Cabling Home Phones

    As we move to 5G could we not remove the copper cabling and recycle.

    I remember about 15 years ago the value of the copper BT had was higher than the total value of BT the government of the day stopped BT from pulling the copper out and selling it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: BT Cabling Home Phones

      That was a "back of a fag packet" calculation which BT denied was accurate.

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: BT Cabling Home Phones

        Maybe, but regardless, replacing 'comms' copper with fibre optic and 5G would free up a lot of copper

        1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          Re: BT Cabling Home Phones

          They've been pulling copper from under the streets for decades!

          In the '80s, I worked for a telecom equipment supply company that was working with BT replacing the long distant trunks with fibre. I was told by one of the marketing people that the scrap value of the copper recovered, even then, was enough to buy the fibre, the equipment to add to the exchanges, and the cost of laying the fibre and recovering the copper, and still turn a profit.

          In most places, it's only the so-called last mile that is still copper, and some of that will be aluminium.

          But it's a diminishing return as you get closer to the last mile. I'm sure that once you get to FTTP provision, the cost or recovering the copper cable will not be worth it. at least not until all of the last-mile in an area has been replaced and they can just rip the whole lot out wholesale.

  8. Bartholomew Bronze badge
    Meh

    3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

    Surely everywhere that Copper is wanted, some of that demand could be replaced by Aluminium ? Earths crust, by mass, is 8.23% Aluminium and 0.006% Copper. I know that Aluminium is less than ideal for numerous reasons:

    Slightly higher resistance (Copper is 1.7 ohm.meters and Aluminium is 2.7 ohm.meters), being the primary one, so structures would need to be about 59% physically larger by volume to compensate.

    And galvanic corrosion would probably be the second biggest problem. But it can be solved by only using Aluminium in circuits that are galvanically isolated (e.g. one side of a transformer).

    The third problem would be the higher energy required to produce Aluminium. To produce enough Aluminium to replace the equivalent amount of Copper takes about fifty percent more energy. If copper is harder and harder to find and remove from the Earth's crust there will be a point where the mineral extraction changes this energy balance in Aluminium's favour.

    But one major advantage for Electric Vehicles would be that Aluminium is about 30% the density of Copper (Copper density: 8.96 g/cm³ ; Aluminium density 2.7 g/cm³) so even if you need to use 60% more by volume it will still end up being about 50% less mass). And for transport lower mass matters.

    Yes there are many applications where smaller physical size is a critical requirement, but not all, and most can be designed around with good solid tried and trusted engineering dating back to Michael Faraday.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

      The simplification taught in schools is useful, but not the whole story. For electricity transmission purposes, there’s more to it than just the resistance and diameter to determine useful performance. The skin effect is such that bigger diameter gives diminishing returns; and if trying to shunt lots of current around, both thermal and electrical performance become important to building things that will last more than 5 min.

      We do have alu transmission cable but it’s uses are restricted by the desire to minimise land take, trenching, earthmoving etc. alu is good for bare overhead lines; but pretty poor for underground.

      In WW2, copper was a protected metal I.e. wholly reserved for the most critical purposes. The US treasury actually allowed the manufacture of some Silver transformers to avoid the need to use valuable copper.

      Internally to my org I wrote a 60-page pamphlet on cable design and performance; summarising the best part of 150 years development.

      In the recent Chilean general election. Copper mining was a major issue on the agenda; with new mines being blocked by the incoming administration.

      1. Bartholomew Bronze badge

        Re: 3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

        > The skin effect is such that bigger diameter gives diminishing returns;

        The skin effect can be mitigated by, instead of a solid single core wire, using it in a litz wire configuration (several thin isolated strands, each strand acts as a single wire to reduce the skin effect by minimizing the cross-sectional area of each strand). Yes it will add volume, additional weight for the insulation, and due to it's additional complexity add an extra energy cost in creation.

        But like most problems there are ways to work around them, if there is no economical alternative available.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: 3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

          Skin depth at 50Hz is 9mm for copper and 11mm for aluminium, so surely not that significant unless you're looking at conductors of 20mm or more, which means a kiloamp or more.

          1. Bartholomew Bronze badge

            Re: 3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

            And even if an electric motor of generator is designed to operate with 2 kHz AC that would only be a skin depth of 1.458 mm (copper) and 1.834 mm(aluminium). The very worse case in a device where this matters is that you end up using hollow conductors (no point in having a central core of metal if no energy is transferred through it) configured in a litz wire like configuration.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: 3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

            The stuff I routinely deal with is up to 2500mm^2; 30mm+ diameter. So, very much into diminishing returns to increase diameter further.

    2. Roger Greenwood

      Re: 3rd most Abundant element in Earth's crust should be used more ?

      As pointed out by others, aluminium is used in many places instead of copper either to save weight or cost. There are many areas where this is not sensible/cost effective e.g. requirement for high current density (e.g. motors) or strength (cables and swithgear). UK DNOs use it quite a lot underground. So cost will decide, as with most things.

      "..so structures would need to be about 59% physically larger by volume to compensate." This is what is known in the trade as "bollocks". The cable may be larger, the structure not so much.

    3. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Slightly higher resistance (Copper is 1.7 ohm.meters and Aluminium is 2.7 ohm.meters)

      Your "slightly higher" resistance actually works out around 60% higher, which is a significant increase in resistance per metre. Cables would need to be a lot thicker to compensate, therefore a lot heavier and more difficult to install.

  9. Conundrum1885

    RTSC

    Not a total loss, seems that room temperature superconductors or at least "better than copper" ones may be possible.

    Many years ago I read of a material that fitted the description, using polymers but think the problem was mass production.

    In theory at least, using a dual core fibre where electrons and holes flow along separate paths may be more efficient and a

    way to increase conductivity over pure copper.

    The useful part here, Type III ie dual bipolaron where pairs of electrons and holes with reversed electron spins to achieve

    ballistic conductivity may be an efficient way to send energy over very large distances.

    At smaller scales using Cu/Ag or something similar for very small yet efficient coils may be possible.

    This would also help tame the tendency of pure Cu to produce problematic dendrites at the low end of the discharge curve,

    and it does seem that plating this over a conductive polymer core would also reduce the mass of Cu in a given battery.

    Likewise, replacing Al (a terrible conductor) with something else would again reduce Ohmic heating within the battery

    Its not actually that hard to imagine replacing Cu with Cu/Au or Cu/Au/Sn as an alternative conductor if gold itself wasn't such

    a sought after metal.

    1. Spherical Cow

      Re: RTSC

      Aluminium is not "a terrible conductor". It is a reasonable conductor, which is why it is used in overhead power lines (and also because copper is heavier and too stretchy).

      1. David 132 Silver badge

        Re: RTSC

        Also used - in the past at least - in domestic wiring. My house in Oregon, built in the early 80s, has aluminium wiring for several of the circuits. And there are special (galvanically not electrically) isolating connectors widely available for bridging it to copper.

  10. Lordrobot

    MICE EATING YOUR GREEN CHEESE...

    One of the more interesting economic concepts to early adaptation and forcing technology is that the mice creep in and botch it up. So let's walk through a few nightmares. You can fight my number and physics concepts with weak arguments or you can just downvote me with mindless anger. I am ambivalent because I know the mice will win.

    1) So Mr Green buys $45,000 of solar panels for the roof of his home and a houseful of batteries. The Gov pays 30% of that... SO that part is Free.. RIGHT? WRONG.

    So where are the mice? Solar panels don't last as long as claimed. When one goes, then resistance builds and others are sure to follow. Then there is the stress to the roof of the home. Cyclones love solar panels because they become wind generators, pulling roofs off houses and generating the expensive potential energy of mass grabbing velocity and smashing to the ground.

    "Oh, I'm Back to the Grid again..." Didn't Gene Autry sing this bit...

    Back on the grid, though you were back on the grid with the hair dryer and Air Conditioning unit anyway. The inverse square law guarantees you cannot get greater efficiency than the radiation hitting the panels. We could motorise them. Yes ... no mice in that idea.

    Each time a chap claims on your roof to change out a defective panel or fix storm damage or god help a roof leak under the panels, it will cost plenty and the government will not be stepping in to contribute to your losses.

    The solar panel mice make the solar panels less efficient over time. They have done studies for "Early" replaces and found with the Gov generosity helps to reduce panel failure by early replacement but is an ecological disaster when it comes to recycling and removing the silver and worthless glass to the landfill.

    The battery mice are even worse. Service calls and wouldn't you know, batteries also fail prematurely and set off balance entropy and eat the cheese again for battery replacement and the energy inflationary mouse of continued reduced efficiency over time.

    Meanwhile, your neighbour, is on the grid, paying $2000 USD a year and has a home office so he deducts about $400 a year for that, buys a Section 179 Mini split AC for his office, depreciates that, and reduces his grid bill to $1800 a year still taking the $360 annual deduction for his home office utilities. BTW the mini splits have switched to 30 v DC air handler devices and 120 to 240 v outdoor units.

    Now we have the copper mice. So if Demand is soaring for solar panels and copper is soaring and in short supply, what does that mean for the cost efficiency? It means it will get less cost-efficient over time. But that hasn't stopped the Gov from offering green tax credits as a % of the cost. The Gov is also sponsoring Tariffs to protect inefficient domestic producers. Buy Murican... save Murican Job... BUT WAIT... There's More... OUR Solar PANELS ARE SOLD By VETS AND INSTALLED By VETS! Are the mice also VETS? I digress. Please thank the mice for their service. Thanks to the mice money is being dumped directly into the bottomless pit of entropy. It is more of an unmade bed than Linux.

    So at this point with no end in sight, our Green Cheese is being consumed by an endless stream of mice.

    To my knowledge, there is not one solar panel house or commercial structure of any kind other than space vehicles that ever met the optimistic claim of 30 years without issues. In fact, most economists see five years as the first major BUST where the homeowner gets destroyed with repair costs to both the home and the panels and batteries.

    Speaking of mice, have you been to a WAWA charging station lately? The captive audiences inside WAWA burning time while their EV charges at a snail's pace and at a higher cost than petrol. Should have taken AMTRAK.

    Nuclear fusion is a few decades away, though the Chinese have a "tokamak" reactor that has produced itemperatures 5x that of the sun. Brits are working on innovative wall structures.

    I challenge each of you to start to look for the Green Cheese eating mice before diving into the empty deep end of a cement swimming pool along with Governments that pick winners in a marketplace teeming with mice.

    This can be summed in a basic truth... It took a lot of brains to build a nuclear bomb... then the scientist turned it over to the intellectual bottom rung, politicians.

  11. Richard Boyce

    Possible solution....

    Now would be a good time to discover a low-cost room-temperature superconductor that doesn't contain copper.

    1. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      Re: Possible solution....

      Superconductors enable a whole lot of amazing physics. The world would be a different place if superconductors worked at common temperatures.

      1. Conundrum1885

        Re: Possible solution....

        It seems that one possible approach might be to use hydrides, specifically LaH10X where X is the magic ingredient that permits metallic hydrogen to be stable at near ambient pressure.

        I often wonder why palladium sulfur hydrides aren't used, in this case the formula would be LaH10PdS or similar, with the Pd nanoparticles in the La bulk acting as the hydrogen host and the sulfur acting as the catalytic agent permitting Cooper pairs to form at room temperature but more sensible pressure.

        The trick would be to get the right mixture, a regular lattice made using nanotech might work here.

    2. Binraider Silver badge

      Re: Possible solution....

      Cue graphene marketing claims. The material that can do everything… in a laboratory.

      But is anyone seriously investing in scaling it up to useful production levels? High copper prices might prompt it.

  12. Snowy Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Enviroment or Climate

    Dig up or poison the world there has to be a better way to save the world

  13. fraunthall

    Delusional Thinking Rules

    Here we go again, dancing around the mulberry bush.

    As usual, the fools and nincompoops who want a fast transition to electric vehicles have not paid any attention to the availability of the materials needed to support a move to non-petroleum-based transportation energy needs, such as copper and other metals that are needed to accomplish their delusional aims.

    Why would the the misguided climate idiots think about practical matters? All that matters to them is what they want.

    Most politicians and their equally ignorant advisers and activist supporters have no concept of the impact of reality on their dreams and ideas.

    They get an idea, which sounds wonderful, but is not based on any background knowledge or understanding, except for the fantasies they love, and ignore the rest. Facts and evidence are never considered. It is all wishfull and fantasy thinking.

  14. jmch Silver badge

    Other use cases???

    The article / study focuses on the much higher Cu requirements of electric vehicles vs combustion engine vehicles, but that is a very tiny portion of energy use. The first main thing is sustainable generation. Nuclear, Hydro, wind, geothermal don't themselves use significant amounts of copper. Generators in these use copper but not that much. And I don't think there is THAT much copper in solar panels either. The biggest requirement for copper is in an upgraded grid, and as many have pointed out, if we don't have enough copper for that we can make do with Aluminium (not ideal but good enough fro most applications if copper becomes scarce / expensive).

    Also the comparison between CU requirements for hybrid vs full electric vehicles seems to be comparing a Prius vs a Tesla - Most other things being equal, the copper required for an electric vehicle is proportional to the range and power of the vehicle, and most electric vehicles will have (and need) far less power than a Tesla or equivalent.

  15. Danny 2 Silver badge

    Have you ever spent the night in jail? Well I have

    Two cell mates discussing a factory burglary - "No, don't go for the contents, go for the copper wiring behind the walls, that's where the money is."

    Long before his death my dad couldn't recall what cables went where or why, but I am sitting in a copper gold mine, with a huge stash of pasta and vegetable oil. Mums house is an effective Faraday cage thanks to dad's DIY wiring. The wiring is probably more valuable than the house.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Have you ever spent the night in jail? Well I have

      Re-wired our old home and removed enough lead wrapped cable to pay for the copper replacements when lead was particularly expensive in the 70s.

  16. simonb_london

    Net zero?

    Wouldn't it be better to aim for a healthy planet and healthy life on it? Obsessing over one of the most abundant elements on the planet is probably going to cause more problems than it solves apart from being a massive distraction.

  17. Julz

    Metalic

    Hydrogen would be a pretty good conductor just need to...

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Metalic

      Iron is only about 5 times the resistivity of copper. For many applications we could easily use iron instead and still make cheaper electricity. One of the problems with renewable is the effort spent in making things too efficient where less efficient option will make cheaper electricity.

  18. adam 40 Silver badge

    We will have to change

    how we work, and "fill up" our cars.

    Like the old days where you only got flour when the wind was blowing...

    Factories and offices only run when the wind blows or the sun shines, and likewise, we charge our cars when there is sufficient excess renewable electricity.

    Hopefully, variable electricity pricing to the consumer should take care of this. Use market forces.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: We will have to change

      Market forces will always be used against you - have you not noticed the smart meters they've forced on everyone. You have to be at home to enjoy the cheap electricity that would be available only when you were at work! This is why it costs £500 or so for £15 worth of electronics to charge your car from your PV.

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