How copper keeps us moving

Today, transportation by land, sea and air is faster, safer and more reliable than ever.

A major factor in this is the use of high conductivity and high strength copper alloys for electrical applications such as motors and wiring, springs, steering systems, avionics and many more.

Where high strength copper alloys are used, weight and space saving—including miniaturisation—has resulted, leading to improved fuel efficiency and lower operating costs, with associated environmental benefits.

Copper in the air

Originally, pilots flew their planes using mechanical controls that used a system of wires and pulleys. As technology advanced and planes became faster and larger, pilots could no longer rely on physical strength to control them, so hydraulic systems were introduced. In newer aircraft, the requirement for reduced weight and fuel savings means control systems have become computer-operated, requiring electronic signals transmitted by copper.

Copper on rails

Modern trains rely on electricity supplied via a system of copper cables and overhead conductor wires that run above the length of a track. When trains pass, waves form along these wires, resulting in stresses that could eventually wear them down to the point where they fail. To minimise this wave, the wires are kept very taught using weights suspended at either end of their length, and this means that in addition to being conductive, they must also be very strong. Additionally, they need to have good wear and corrosion resistance, to keep working in all weathers, all year round. High-strength copper alloys such as copper-magnesium are typically used as they offer all these properties.

Copper on the seas

Electricity and copper have played a major role in the evolution of marine vessels of all types. From hull cladding that helps reduce adhesion of marine life that could otherwise slow a ship down to the latest electronics systems, copper and its alloys has been seeing us safely across the oceans for centuries.

When things do go wrong, copper is also there to help. The comprehensive electronics in lifeboats cover critical functions such as communications, navigation and location systems including electronic charts and radar. Copper is present in all of these.

Copper in cars

Copper has been a vital component in motor vehicles since the dawn of the car industry, going right back to the Model T Ford in 1916. Today, it continues to enable innovations that improve functionality, efficiency, comfort and safety, with even the most basic models containing around a kilometre of wiring to carry data, send control signals and supply electrical power.

Looking to the near future, copper will play an even greater role as we switch from combustion to electric vehicles. Present not only in wiring, but also motors, batteries and the charging systems that keep them powered, copper will be more in demand than ever to power these and other green technologies.

The European website on copper rotor technology for induction motors, with a focus on industrial applications.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What copper/copper alloy may be used for vehicle radiators?

When good heat transfer is essential, as in vehicle radiators, copper and brass are excellent choices due to their high thermal conductivity and ease of brazing, especially in thin sheets.

  • What type of copper is specified to make wire used to transmit electricity to trams, trolley buses or trains?

Pure copper is too soft for overhead wires and the copper alloys used are specified in BS EN 50149:2012. These are alloys of copper with respectively small amounts of silver, magnesium, tin or cadmium.

  • Where is copper used in cars and trucks?

A high-purity copper wire harness system carries current from the battery throughout a vehicle to equipment such as lights, central locking, onboard computers and satellite navigation systems. Electric motors, which are wound with high conductivity wire, are also used in many vehicles. The average car contains about 1 km of wire.

  • Which grade of copper is used for vehicle brake pipes?

Copper and copper-nickel tubes are used for vehicle brake pipes due to their good fatigue and corrosion resistance (especially against salt on the roads), where fluid loss could be disastrous. Because of their ductility, they are easy to fit; they are standard equipment for many cars, fire engines, military vehicles, JCBs and other heavy vehicles.

  • Which type of brasses is specified for terminal posts used in signalling and ancillary equipment in the London Underground?

The following brasses have sufficient strength, machinability and electrical conductivity: CW508L (CZ108), CW509L (CZ109) and CW614N (CZ121).