Insights into copper demand for car electrification

Nicola Brittain

A deep dive into how car electrification and battery chemistries affect copper demand.

As anyone who works in the scrap metal trade will tell you – copper is valuable stuff. Otherwise known as the red metal, its value has increased exponentially in recent decades along with the growth in electrical and electronic appliances. The metal’s combination of electrical and thermal conductivity, durability, and corrosion resistance makes it an indispensable material for the automotive industry. From powering electrical systems to improving vehicle safety and efficiency, copper contributes to the performance of every vehicle on the road. Analysts are predicting that it will reach all-time record highs over the coming years, and why? Because, in large part, of the demand to come from electric vehicles and the batteries they contain.

A recent analyst report from industry analyst firm IDTechX, entitled ‘Copper Demand for Cars 2024-2034: Trends, Utilization, Forecasts’, is one of many to predict this exponential rise in price. It explained that the demand for copper from the automotive industry was just over 3MT (1MT = 1 billion kilograms) in 2023 but is set to increase to 5MT in 2034, marking a 4.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Although it explained that today’s vehicles contain a lot of copper, used predominantly in the wiring, cars have grown larger and more complex over the decades, causing wiring requirements to explode from a handful of connections to thousands and literal miles of wires throughout the car.

This increasing complexity leads to even more requirement for wiring, and despite Tesla and others working towards a more efficient vehicle networking, IDTechEx predicts that the wiring harness will continue to grow over the coming years. However, the additional copper required for the ever-growing wire harness is dwarfed by the new copper demand generated through electrification.

Building an electric powertrain also requires many copper-hungry components that were previously not needed for internal combustion engine vehicles. The traction motors, high voltage cabling, inverter, and charger require in the region of 10-15kg. The motor is the determining factor in this range, with factors like having single or dual motors and the motors design having a large impact on the copper required. However, the copper demand for these individual components is still small compared with the battery. IDTechEx’s research finds that the average 64kWh battery in a fully electric car requires 25.4kg of copper.

Copper’s electrical and chemical properties mean that it is used throughout the battery. Every single cell within the battery, of which there are hundreds or thousands, contains a copper foil to carry power out of the cell. Additionally, there are large copper bars throughout carrying power from the cells out of the battery to high voltage cables and eventually the power electronics and motor.

Finally, battery chemistry is one of the biggest factors governing how much energy a cell can store. Assuming that everything else remains the same, such as material thicknesses and cell form factor, then if chemistry A has double the energy of chemistry B, batteries made with chemistry A will have half the copper of batteries with chemistry B for the same overall energy capacity. In reality, this is not far off the situation with the leading battery chemistries - NMC and LFP. IDTechEx’s research found that the average copper intensity in kg/kWh of an LFP cell was nearly double that of an NMC cell.

Other chemistries are available and have their place in electrification, but for the automotive market over the next 10 years, IDTechEx predicts that LFP and NMC will dominate, accounting for more than 90% of the market between them. LFP will likely grow its market share between now and then thanks to its good-enough energy density and lower prices compared to NMC. This will cause a corresponding increase in copper demand for electric vehicles, as coupled with LFP’s higher copper intensity, IDTechEx also expects average battery sizes per vehicle to increase.

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