The electrification of vehicles has dragged a great deal of attention in the last years. Market pundits affirm that the days of internal combustion engines (ICE), at least in Europe, are counted. Worldwide, the portfolio of electrification in terms of motorization is large and the options will be ranging from mild HEVs (hybrids with 48V e-engine), passing over a full HEVs (hybrids with high operating voltages larger than 60V) to BEVs (battery electric vehicles) to mention some of the possibilities. All major European automobile manufacturers such as Daimler, BMW, VW and PSA have been investing heavily in electrified vehicles. A good example is Volvo. The Sweden-based company plans to unveil one fully new electric car every five years. Furthermore, Volvo is ambitioned to have e-cars to make up half of its sales by 2025.
The implications of electrification in the vehicle is multifaceted. Not only will the type of motorization be influenced. Peripheral systems for more functionalities and comfort, such as infotainment, in combination with ever increasing levels of automation (autonomous driving) with redundant sensor and high speed data transmission systems are also playing an important role in the electrification of the modern automobile. The benefits of all this development are enormous. In terms of environmental protection, the aim is the reduction of green-house-effect gases. Additionally, superior driving comfort and safety are expected with the increase of autonomous driving level.
In the aftermath, the quest for new and better components to transmit more power and signal is certain. Devices such as batteries, transistors, capacitors, ICs, Printed Circuit Boards, LEDs and many others are under extreme development cycles to attend the demand. The same applies to the cables, which carry all power and generated data throughout the car’s body. The new characteristics of automobile electrification (such as thick battery and ground cables) and automation (with all its redundant sensing systems) will lead to an increase of about 60% on the current wiring weight.
For the manufacture of virtually any electric circuit, copper is the natural choice for conductor material. It is a great thermal and electrical conductor with suitable mechanical properties.
An important fact to be added to this equation is that some experts expect copper to become a more demanded commodity in the next decades. Not only automobiles are evolving towards a predominantly electric/electronic good. The phenomenon called Internet of Things (IoT) requires the interconnectivity among virtually any object in an extremely large network. In other words, “simple” equipment such as a refrigerator or a house will need sophisticated electronics for emission and reception of data (ICs, Wi-Fi modules, finer circuit boards, antennas, wiring etc.) in order to become “smart”. Further, in the automotive industry, automobiles will begin to exchange data with other cars (car-2-car communication) or with anything else on the road, such as traffic lights or recharging stations (car-2-x communication). Moreover, the construction of new "megacities" is also expected to boost copper usage. Obviously this all could lead to an increase in copper demand and prices.
To counterbalance any difficulties that may arise when choosing copper regarding weight and costs, aluminum is the first option. Aluminum is cheaper and also less dense than copper. This opens opportunities to cost and weight savings in the car’s design. Although aluminum has good mechanical, thermal and electrical properties, we have to admit that these qualities are still inferior compared to copper. To worsen things, aluminum naturally reacts with oxygen present in the atmosphere to form a very hard crystalline dielectric named aluminum oxide or simply: sapphire, which is very difficult to break or scratch. This oxide forms on the surface of the aluminum whiskers and increases the electric resistances on a metal-to-metal contact, which are undesired in cable harnesses manufacturing.
Not only alternative to copper, but also a needed supplement
“We are not talking about outperforming copper. The case here is to enable aluminum in a technological way to be used in cars to transport power making sense from an economical and environmental perspective”, explains Jonathan Silvano de Sousa, Business Development Manager at GG Group. The application of aluminum power cables for high (60V ~ 1000V+) or low voltages (48V) in the car is a technical challenge that requires a technical answer provided by true experts. Developments in this field also require a high degree of knowledge on aluminum cables and a diverse portfolio of solutions for the aluminum to metal contacting for high and low voltage applications.
Driven by a strong innovation focus on high-voltage and high-frequency solutions, GG Group produces its own aluminum wires in superior quality and built up extensive expertise and technology to realize a metal-to-metal connection using aluminum with resistances and quality compared to regular copper cables. Such solutions have been on the market already for many years in diverse applications in the automotive segment. Power supply, B+, B- and starter/alternator cables are among the examples of successfully industrialized aluminum cables. Further, GG Group already demonstrated the possibility of aluminum use in complex cable harnesses, which are processed by major car manufacturers in some of their designs, reducing costs and weight.
The full potential of the aluminum cable technology for automotive applications has not been reached yet. There are still challenges to be addressed. For instance, volume increase (larger needed cable cross-section) in comparison with copper and thermal management still demand innovative solutions case-by-case in order to allow the use of aluminum in some applications in the car. Holger Fastabend, CSO/CTO at GG Group is convinced: “The total benefit on the application of aluminum wires in cars is a matter of optimization of resources and costs. The latest developments on aluminum makes it a serious candidate when considering the best technical solution.”
Even if copper might still be irreplaceable in certain specific cases, aluminum must be considered as a real contender to it in the race for enabling the massive electrification of cars.
About GG Group (Gebauer & Griller)
We, GG Group, are a global group of companies that has been producing technically high-quality cables and wires for the automotive industry, elevator manufacturers and industrial applications for more than 80 years. Together with our customers, we work with passion to develop innovative and intelligent solutions for their challenges.
With technical solutions,GG Group aims at high quality and the precise fulfilment of customer requirements. Quality is not only the focus of our products and processes, but also of our technical competence in advising our customers.
With more than 4500 employees at 13 locations worldwide and an annual turnover of over € 500 million, GG Group is one of Austria's most successful family-owned industrial companies.
Dr. Irene Pfundner, MBA
Gebauer & Griller Kabelwerke Gesellschaft m.b.H.
T: +43 1 360 20 – 0
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Photo credit: GG Group