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Aluminum-carbon nanotubes could replace copper wiring in cars, report says

Talk of materials used in cars usually centers on carbon fiber and aluminum that help reduce the weight of the body, but there’s another material that is crucial to modern cars — copper. New cars are laced with wiring for everything from infotainment systems to driver-assist sensors. But automakers would like to replace all of that copper with something else, reports Automotive News.

Aluminum-carbon nanotubes could offer the conductivity of copper wiring, while reducing weight. Japan’s Yazaki Corporation is investigating this new material at its California research and development subsidiary, YTC America, according to Automotive News.

The average vehicle contains 30 pounds to 60 pounds of copper, according to Automotive News. Aluminum is much lighter than copper, but in its raw form, the metal isn’t suitable for automotive wiring. Aluminum only has 60 percent of the conductivity of copper, and 25 to 30 percent of copper’s tensile strength, according to Automotive News.

That’s why Yazaki is experimenting with combining aluminum with carbon nanotubes. Those nanotubes are cylindrical molecules of carbon atoms, which make up microscopically fine strands of material that are added to aluminum. This gives the aluminum greater strength and conductivity, Yazaki claims. The carbon nanotube material also raises the heat resistance of aluminum, allowing it to be used in high-voltage battery cables for electric cars, Stefan Maat, YTC America director of materials research and development, said in an interview with Automotive News.

As with all research, promising test results for aluminum-carbon nanotubes may not translate into something that is commercially feasible. But automakers are eager for anything that can cut pounds from their cars.

The quest to shed weight has traditionally been associated with racing and performance road cars. Reducing weight improves everything from acceleration to handling, after all. But weight reduction has become a priority for all kinds of vehicles, from pickup trucks to luxury sedans, in order to improve fuel economy. Stricter global emissions standards are putting automakers under more pressure to lower fuel consumption. The average weight of new cars has also crept up as demand for safety and convenience features has increased, and automakers need to do something to counteract that.

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