The first half of 2021 has seen a tidal wave of announcements of new electrodeposited copper foil mill projects, as well as second- and third-phase expansions at existing mills, according to market consultancy Roskill. The majority of the projects are targeted at making copper foil for lithium-ion batteries to meet demand from EVs.
Copper foil is the most commonly used anode current collector in Li-ion batteries; it not only lets electric current flow but also dissipates the heat generated by the battery. The thinner the foil is, the more active material can be loaded into the electrode, which reduces battery weight, increases battery capacity, and minimizes manufacturing costs and environmental impact.
To that end, cutting-edge process control technology and highly competitive production facilities are required.
Four grams of copper foil are used in making one smartphone; 35 to 40 kg—or ten thousand times more copper foil—is required for mid/large-sized EV batteries, which is why copper foil demand has skyrocketed recently, according to leading copper foil producer SK Nexilis.
From January to May 2021, more than a dozen new projects and expansions have been reported globally, Roskill said. This acceleration in new capacity collectively totals 560 kt—equivalent to a 67% increase in the nameplate industry capacity that existed at the end of 2020 (830kt). This new capacity will be brought on stream over the 2022 to 2025 period. Large scale foil mills (50 ktpy) take between 18-20 months to construct and commission.
The primary factors determining the siting of new foil capacity include proximity to EV battery making customers; a site suitable for multiple expansion phases; locally available supplies of high-grade copper scrap (the primary raw material) and finally, a cheap and reliable electricity supply (the main manufacturing cost), Roskill said.
South Korean company SK Nexilis has accelerated the completion of its domestic number five and number six plants in Jeongeup for Q3 and Q4 2021 to respond to supply shortages across the Asian market. It has also announced the building of three 50 ktpy capacity mills in Malaysia, Poland, and the United States, as it aims to become the world’s leading copper foil maker, with a capacity of 250 ktpy by 2025.
Also prominent are its South Korean rivals Iljin Materials and Solus Advanced Materials. Iljin is investing in new plants in Malaysia and Hungary, while Solus is rolling out new capacity in Hungary and the United States (in partnership with scrap supplier Toyota Tsusho).
There are also multiple new plants and expansion projects underway in China and Taiwan, operated by a number of domestic players aimed at serving the booming local market. These new plants and expansions highlight new applications for copper demand growth but also fiercer competition ahead for high-grade scrap, Roskill said.