The energy transition in a copper-limited world

Proposed by Professor John Thompson


Copper is a vital metal in all forms of energy generation, transmission and use. The energy transition – renewable energy and electrification of transportation will increase demand for copper significantly.

What would happen if we can’t source sufficient copper in the future?


Total world production is about 18 million metric tons per year. Copper demand is increasing by more than 575,000 tons annually and accelerating. Many studies have suggested that copper supply may not keep up with demand. For example, based on 2006 figures for per capita consumption, Tom Graedel and colleagues at Yale University calculate that by 2100 global demand for copper will outstrip the amount extractable from the ground. More recent studies based on increasing demand from the energy transition suggest that supply constraints will emerge much sooner. Furthermore, many potential new copper mines face serious ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) challenges and risks that may further limit supply.

Commercial context

Copper is essential for tech industries, energy generation and transmission, and communication. For some purposes, other metals can substitute – e.g., aluminium wire is used in preference to copper in many applications, but may generate fire hazards. Some safety issues have since been solved by use of larger sizes of aluminium wire (#8AWG and up). The Airbus A380 uses aluminium wire in place of copper wire for electrical power transmission.


United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports and others.


Outlined below are two possible challenges to address the issue of a copper-limited world. The teams are only expected to choose one.

  1. Supply: Is it possible to change the way we extract copper – discover, mine and process to increase supply while decreasing environmental or social impacts. How could we recover copper from the subsurface without mining – e.g., using chemical or biological leaching? What key technology would enable change?
  2. Demand and use: Can we change or redesign the use of copper in power generation to reduce the amount needed? Are there additives or alloys to increase conductivity with less metal? What technical advance would facilitate change?

Output ideas

  • An analysis and “White Paper” report defining new opportunities, options and obstacles for the future.
  • Technology identification: critical gap, R&D to fill the gap, approach to innovation and methodology – work plan.
  • Specific product outline, design and spec.
  • Start-up company business plan to develop a new product or service to meet the copper challenge.