Ever since it was first introduced as a commercially viable metal almost a century ago, aluminum has been transforming nearly every industry into which it is introduced. This transformation continues today as aluminum is helping to shape the renewable energy industries, such as involving the construction of solar panels. It is amazing to realize that after so many decades, aluminum remains a material of the future.
Of course, at Clinton Aluminum, we work with aluminum every day. And while we are never shocked by the amazing applications our customers come up with on a regular basis, we continue to be impressed by just how revolutionary aluminum has proven to be. If you are working in the solar industry or another area of green energy, we’re here to help fulfill your need for reliable, high performance aluminum alloys.
Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your business thrive.
Aluminum is no stranger to the energy industry
When people think of aluminum, they might think of huge skyscrapers or airplane bodies or even rocket ships. This wonder metal is famed for its tremendous strength-to-weight ratio and as such has become essential for many different applications that require being as lightweight as possible. It’s likely that not many people first think of electricity and aluminum.
Yes, aluminum is lightweight. And it is extremely ductile, non-magnetic, and corrosion resistant. It’s also a great conductor of heat. However, what is most important to our discussion today is that aluminum is also a strong conductor of electricity. Compared to copper, which many people associate with electrical wiring because of its conductivity, aluminum has 59% the conductivity while having only 30% the density.
That makes aluminum a great choice when it comes to electrical applications. Aluminum wiring was actually first used in the early 1900s, and its prevalence spread very rapidly after the end of World War II, to the point where it eventually replaced copper as the conductor of choice in power cables. This is because of aluminum’s cost and weight advantages, as well as its corrosion resistance.
Another common use of aluminum over the last century has been as a rigid electrical conduit. This is a tubing system that helps protect wiring systems. It is an improvement over steel conduit because it does not spark or rust, and as such aluminum is commonly used for this purpose in locations such as coal mines, grain elevators, and oil refineries where it is critical that sparking be avoided.
The alloys most commonly associated with electrical applications are in the 1ххх, 6ххх, and 8ххх families. In particular with the 8xxx series, the products have a demonstrable service life of more than 40 years. Power cables usually start with a solid aluminum rod of a diameter between 9 to 15 mm. At this size, it is relatively simple to bend or roll the rod without any cracking. In fact, the rod is nearly impossible to tear, making it perfect for critical transmission applications in municipal power grids.
All of this is to say that aluminum has a long history of being a vital metal to the power and energy industries. So, it is no surprise that aluminum would be helping to shape the new applications that are currently being developed in renewable and green energy.
Aluminum is helping to make solar energy a viable alternative
As an example of how aluminum is affecting the solar power industry, this article from PV Magazine highlighted that Natcore Technology Inc. has succeeded in replacing the silver in its solar cells with aluminum. This development has been made without sacrificing any of the performance of the silver solar cell.
Silver is another material that is extremely conductive, but it also happens to be very expensive when compared with aluminum. Twice as much aluminum will be required in the new solar cells, but the raw material costs will be just .6% as when silver was used. This will represent a huge cost reduction for Natcore.
The company was quoted as saying the use of aluminum, “Will simplify the production process, significantly lower costs, and speed the path toward ultra-high-efficiency cells. The cell utilizes a novel packaging approach in which a flex circuit is directly bonded to multiple, small contact pads by high-speed laser fusion.”
But aluminum is helping transform the industry in other ways than just as a critical component in the solar cell. Aluminum extrusions have been used extensively in all kinds of applications that rely on the metal’s strength, lightweight, and corrosion resistance, for instance in the transportation, building and construction, and aerospace industries.
That’s why many solar companies are turning to aluminum to build their frames and mounting systems. Aluminum extrusions have the added benefit of being easy to design and work with, thanks in large part to aluminum’s high formability. Moreover, aluminum is 100% recyclable, an important consideration for many renewable energy companies.
Of course, this tremendous flexibility also presents an important challenge when working with extrusions. For new and innovative designs, it may require a great deal of testing and prototyping to make sure that the design is adequate for the task at hand and there won’t be any risk of structural failure. This brings up another of aluminum’s advantages, which is that it is relatively cheap to prototype, not to mention that new designs can be tested quickly. In addition, there is new software available that can analyze the viability of extrusions before physically testing them.
Aluminum alloys are proving a critical material in the solar industry, just as they have been proven essential to many other industries over the past century. Aluminum makes financial sense thanks to its flexibility and high performance at a reasonable price that can’t be matched by any other material.
At Clinton Aluminum, our founding principle is based on the importance of finding the right material for the job. Contact one of our friendly customer service representatives today to learn more about what aluminum alloy might be right for you.