Recycled Copper Could Help OEMs Meet Sustainability Goals

John Kightlinger profile picture
Posted By
John Kightlinger
Manager, High-Voltage Manufacturing Engineering

Copper has long been an important material for vehicle electrical architectures, and it will become critical as the industry moves toward fully electric vehicles. But as automotive companies work to reduce their impact on the environment, many are looking to transition to more sustainable solutions. Using recycled copper is a promising way to help with those efforts.

Copper is highly conductive, extremely flexible, and resistant to heat and corrosion, all of which make it ideal for delivering power and signals in a vehicle. The Copper Development Association reports that conventional cars contain 8 kg to 22 kg of copper — but a battery electric vehicle could have as much as 83 kg of copper. Much of what is driving that increase is the need for high-voltage cables and busbars, which often have to be much thicker than low-voltage wiring.

As automakers grapple with that increase, they are also planning to meet short-term sustainability goals while working toward longer-term goals that often include achieving carbon neutrality within the next couple of decades.

The process of recycling copper emits less carbon than the process of mining and refining copper, and obviously the benefit increases substantially as the thickness of the conductor increases. For example, Aptiv estimates that producing a kilometer of 6 mm2 cable from recycled copper instead of mined copper can save 162 kg of CO2e emissions, while producing a kilometer of 70 mm2 cable can save 2,022 kg of emissions – that’s equivalent to the carbon emitted from driving a typical internal combustion-powered vehicle nearly 5,000 miles.

When Aptiv Eco-Core recycled copper is used in a typical high-voltage wiring harness that includes cables at 6 mm2, 8 mm2, 50 mm2 and 70 mm2, the per-harness CO2e savings is about 72 percent, or 17 kg. For a program that includes 119,000 harnesses per year, an OEM could reduce its carbon emissions by 2,000 metric tons annually by switching to recycled copper. To put that into context, one tree on average will absorb a ton of CO2 over its lifetime, so a company would have to plant 2,000 trees per year to achieve the same result without using recycled materials.

Performance and cost

Naturally, OEMs will want to know how well recycled copper performs compared with mined copper.

To answer that question, we put high-voltage 6 mm2 cabling made from Aptiv Eco-Core recycled copper through the same cable validation testing we run for all of our cables. We performed electrical tests, such as evaluating whether it could withstand certain voltages. We performed mechanical tests, including stripping, abrading, bending and flexing. And we performed a range of environmental tests, measuring the impact of heat, cold, and cycling temperature and humidity. The recycled copper passed all of them.

For common applications, copper is viewed as being infinitely recyclable without losing its properties, making it a key element in decarbonization and the circular economy. Aptiv is now one step closer to adding automotive wire harnesses to the list of those applications.

Aptiv recognizes the urgency of finding sustainable solutions for our customers and for our own operations. We will continue to work closely with our customers to ensure that their requirements are met, always with an eye toward optimizing for sustainability.