New electrical and electronics applications are fueling copper's recovery from aluminum's 1980s takeover of the automotive radiator industry.
Industry sources say copper use continued to grow in 1996, up from 42 lbs. (19.1 kg) per average vehicle in 1994 and 43.5 lbs. (19.7 kg) last year, to 45 lbs. (20.4kg).
Johan Scheel, vice president of the International Copper Assn. (ICA), attributes the gains to the barrage of electronics in today's cars. "We are seeing in North America a continuing trend of increasing copper use for electric applications," he says, "making up for any loss (in radiators)."
A University of Michigan study shows electrical distribution systems use the most copper in today's autos. It projects a tripling in the metal's pound-per-vehicle numbers from 1980 to 1997, from 9.6 lbs. (4.4 kg) to 27.1 lbs (12.3 kg). This increase makes sense, considering that the number of electrical circuits has more than doubled in that time. Although automakers continue to reduce the size and number of wiring harnesses, copper still will be needed for interconnections.
Small motors, which power windows, seats, sunroofs and mirrors, also require copper. As these components have become standard features, the demand for copper has grown from 2.6 lbs. per vehicle (1.2 kg) in 1992 to 3.1 lbs. (1.4 kg) per vehicle today.
The increasing installation of speakers, CD players, cellular phones, air bag systems and on-board navigation and information systems also promises to boost the industry's need for copper.
The metal not only continues its advances in electrical uses, but also is attempting to win back its original big market: radiators.
ICA hopes successful tests of a new copper and brass radiator it helped develop will translate into serious competition for aluminum. The new radiator endured a 6,000-hour test that equals 300,000 road miles. "Testing was interrupted before anything happened to the radiators. Inspections showed no corrosion or damage," Mr. Scheel reports.
Although the material is said to be lighter, stronger, almost 100% recyclable and corrosion-resistant, the U.S. market may have to wait awhile before the product debuts here. Mr. Scheel says a major European truck maker will be the first to try out the new copper radiator.