Laboratory version of the aluminum power plug.
Electric power and electronics play an increasing role in vehicles. Currently copper is the conductive material of choice but in comparison to aluminum, it is heavy and expensive. Before aluminum can replace copper in power supply systems, a number of technological challenges need to be surmounted.

When temperatures are high, aluminum displays a distinct creep behavior. Conventional connectors could thus not be used, as they would become loose with time.

One possible alternative - the use of aluminum-based elements in cables and copper-based elements in connection areas - also entails problems. Because there is a high electrochemical potential between a copper contact and an aluminum cable, this kind of wiring would be very prone to corrosion.

Scientists from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) of Munich, Germany - in collaboration with BMW engineers - have developed an innovative aluminum-based electrical connection concept.

A sheet metal cage, which is an electromagnetic compatibility requirement anyway, enhances the mechanical stability of the plug and guarantees the long-term support of the contact pressure spring. Because the necessary contact force is no longer provided by the contact elements themselves, the originally problematic creep behavior of aluminum turns into a contact stabilizing, and thus, positive property. This, in turn, also guarantees a constant contact force over a lifetime of ten years.

To this end, the researchers came up with a special wedge-shaped geometry for the aluminum contacts. The aluminum creep now leads to the two contacts getting closer and closer together over time, thereby rendering the electrical connection even better. Moreover, the consistent use of aluminum alloys and the application of precious metal plating made it possible to relocate the formation of corrosion-prone local elements to less critical locations in the system.

A further problem with substituting aluminum for copper is its lower electrical conductivity. In the case of high-power on-board systems in particular, the cable cross-sections, which are about 60 per cent larger, need to be taken into account in the construction of cable ducts and feed-throughs. One positive thing the scientists discovered was that because aluminum is very pliable, the standard values from copper cable processing, where bending radii are set based on the diameter, could also be used for aluminum.

In order to determine the long-term behavior of the coated aluminum contacts under even the rough conditions typical for motorized vehicles, the project partners initiated a further research project. Funded by the Bavarian Research Foundation (BFS), this project will deliver evidence on the aging behavior and thus the suitability of the concept by 2012.

Initial results indicate that the material substitution will lead to significant improvements in weight, cost, and ultimately emissions. “We expect the high-voltage on-board systems of most electric vehicles to be based on aluminum by 2020. Aluminum will find its way into low-voltage on-board systems as well, because the price of copper will rise significantly with increasing demand,” says Professor Udo Lindemann from the Institute of Product Development at the TUM.


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