Material is chosen with a product's design optimisation in mind.  There have been many developments in the beginning of the 21st century that one now needs to consider when designing a product:

  • Functionality – Products should have multiple uses and be effortlessly available.

  • Miniturization – The 21st century consumer expects products to be ever lighter and more portable.
  • Efficient use of Materials – Products should use fewer materials to reduce demands on our natural resources.

  • Energy Efficiency – To minimize the effects of climate change and to save the earth's natural resources, energy usage should be reduced as much as possible.

A product's material needs to be chosen with these points in mind.  When a simple material does not fulfill the requirements, we can look to alloys (see Alloys) or create a composite (see Composites).

Example – Copper is the first choice of materials when looking for electrical performance under limited space conditions. The situation is different when you build a high-voltage line where weight and tensile strength are of central importance.  The lighter and stronger the conductive material, the more space you can have between pylons.  Copper is therefore displaced as the material of choice by a composite material composed of braided aluminum wires (as the lightest electrical conductor material) over a steel core (for high tensile strength).

Below are the main reasons that copper, copper alloys, and composites have so many existing uses and new applications are continuously being developed. 

Electrical Conductivity

Based on its physical characteristics, copper is, after silver and before gold, the best conductive material for electricity.  From electric motors to power electrics to data processors, it would be difficult to imagine life without copper. 

Although it is possible to create copper alloys that exhibit different properties, it is not possible to improve upon copper's electrical conductivity.  Because of the physical mechanics of how electricity travels through metals - the movement of free electrons in the crystal lattice structure - every change in the copper lattice decreases the capability of electrical conductivity.

In certain situations another function takes precidence over electrical conductivity.  Plug in contacts, for example, enlarge their cross-section to compensate for some conductivity loss.

Thermal Conductivity

The properties of electrial and heat conductivity run parallel to one another.  Thus, copper is also an important material for thermal conductivity.  This is even more so the case when the production volume is small or increased strength is required because of higher temperatures and cost effective joining. 

One must also consider that electricity is transported parallel to the conductor surface, while heat perpendicularly.  With electrical as well as thermal, the addition of alloying elements only reduces the conductivity.  Unlike that of electricity, the loss of thermal conductivity can be partially compensated by reducing the wall strength.  The higher strength of the alloy material makes thinner wall feasible.

Resistance to Corrosion

Corrosion resistance is not directly a material property, but depends rather on multiple factors such as surrounding materials, temperature or mechanical stresses.  More on corrosion resistance can be found

Copper and copper alloys can, in many applications, prove very resistance to corrosion.  This, particularly in combination with other properties, is very important in many applications.  Copper alloys play a particulary important roll in maritime applications such as propellers, oil platforms and offshore wind turbines.

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