Copper Mining for Future Car Applications

Chemical looping combustion (CLC) is a technological process that involves the use of a metal-oxide like copper, nickel or iron that supplies its own oxygen into the system rather than from the environment.

The combustion product that results from the reduction of the oxygen carrier is a highly concentrated stream of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) that is converted to hot steam that will generate power. This reduction-oxidation cycle continues as the reduced oxygen carrier returns to the air reactor where it can again become oxidized and brought to the fuel reactor for power generation1.

This process is comparable to the circulation of blood in our body; oxygenated blood from the heart travels to the organs and muscles to be used for a variety of biological processes, and is eventually brought back to the heart in a deoxygenated form to go through blood exchange once again.

Copper’s low melting point of 1,085 °C, as compared to that of other metals like iron whose melting point is 1,538 °C, has often limited its ability to be used as an oxygen carrier in CLC systems. This low melting point has been shown to cause the agglomeration of copper-containing carriers, which is the accumulation of these metals as they stick together, thereby reducing the efficacy of the system.

A recent research effort by the United States Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has discovered that by mixing a small amount of iron oxide with a high concentration of copper oxide can prevent agglomeration from occurring when used in CLC technology2.

Copper and Electric Vehicles

In addition to any CLC technology that may be implemented into clean vehicles, a substantial amount of copper is required for any type of electric vehicle. Copper is often used as a key component of the batteries, windings, wiring and charging infrastructure required for functional electric vehicles, thereby increasing the global demand of this element. As research into improving the efficiency of energy independent vehicles (EIV) continues to rise, copper is expected to play a key component in the solar photovoltaic panels of EIVs to capture renewable energy for later use.

Increasing the Demand for Copper Mining

As the technology continues to improve, the demand for electric vehicles is expected to increase significantly over the next decade. Since the Electric Vehicle Initiative began in 2009, numerous countries around the world including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, China, France, Sweden, Mexico, India, Japan, Korea, Germany and several others have been activate participants of this movement3. By 2020, the International Energy Agency expects that 9-20 million electric or hybrid cars and buses will be used globally, and that this number will rise to 40-70 million by the year 20254.

This rise in electric vehicles will subsequently raise the copper demand from its current global market of approximately 23.9 million tons to 1.74 million tons by 20275. The expanding electric vehicles market has dramatically increased the price of copper to over $6,000 per metric ton, the highest it has been since 2014.

Chile is the primary producer of global copper, however other countries around the world including Peru, Australia, China, Africa and the United States are opening up several new copper mines to increase their role in supplying copper for this growing demand. BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining and metals company, has recently announced that it will spend $600 million in upgrading technologies and overall mine infrastructure to improve copper production in its mines around the world3.

BHP Billiton and other mining companies around the world are finding a newfound optimism in the long-term future of copper that will remain consistent over the next several decades.

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  1. “Chemical Looping Combustion” – National Energy Technology Laboratory
  2. “Researchers Uncover Copper’s Potential for Reducing CO2 Emissions in Chemical Looping” – United States Office of Fossil Energy
  3. “Electric vehicles, renewable energy driving demand, and price, for copper” – ABC
  4. “Copper demand for electric cars to rise nine-fold by 2027: ICA” – Reuters
  5. “The Electric Vehicle Market and Copper Demand” – IDTechEx

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Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.


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