The Importance of Metal Fabrication in the Renewable Energy Industry
Transitioning to 100% renewable energy could mean a safer and greener planet in the coming years, and it tops the list as the most effective change the world can implement to reverse climate change. Green energy sources such as solar power have zero carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases emission, the gases responsible for global warming. Metal fabrication plays a vital role in green energy production.
Fabricated metals, such as copper and steel, can be used to construct energy production systems and lower production costs while increasing quality and efficiency consistency. This article highlights the top benefits and contributions of metal fabrication to the green energy industry.
What is Metal Fabrication?
Fabricated metal products are a go-to solution for parts and machines in the green energy industry. These products bring high performance and industrial-strength to structures such as turbines, solar panels, and power plants. Fabricated metals are also relatively cost-effective and reliable for long periods of time. Some of the metals used in the production of fabricated parts include stainless steel, carbon steel, aluminum, and copper.
The actual process of metal fabrication involves manipulating raw metal materials in order to make an end product. There are several types of fabrication, all of which have their own uses and advantages. The types include:
Casting is typical in the mass production of system parts, especially when a fabricator wants to use the same mold to reproduce identical products. The process entails pouring molten metal into a die or mold for hardening and desired shaping. There are various types of casting, including die, permanent, and vacuum. Die casting reshapes molten metal in a die instead of a mold, where the fabricator applies pressure until the product hardens. On the other hand, permanent casting leverages a mold to reshape molten metal. Even so, most green energy plants recommend semi-permanent molds due to their expandable cores that are ideal for multiple applications, making them more cost-effective.
This process pulls a metal piece through or into a tapered die using tensile force, essentially stretching it out. Drawing is prevalent in sheet metal fabrication, in which metal sheets are turned into box-shaped or hollow cylindrical vessels. Metal fabricators can also use deep drawing to create a product that has a greater depth than the original radius of the metal.
Forging, one of the oldest forms of metal fabrication, is a process used in reshaping metal fabrications. This process leverages compressive forces from hammer or dice strikes to rework the metal piece into the desired shape. There are two types of forging, cold and warm. Cold forging happens at room temperature, while warm requires an above room temperature that doesn’t exceed the recrystallization temperature range of the metal used.
In this process, fabricators use unique turrets to punch holes into a metal surface. The end products are the metal piece with new holes, often used for fastening purposes, and the pieces of metal that have been punched out. Punching is a quick and cost-effective process, and can involve holes of any shape or size.
Applications of Fabricated Metals in Renewable Energy Sector
As noted, there is an immediate need for renewable energy production. There are several different ways to utilize green energy by using solar, wind, and water power. The top applications of fabricated metals in the green energy industry include:
- Solar Energy
Solar energy is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. In 2020 alone, more than 17.7 million American homes installed about 19.2 gigawatts of solar capacity. These values translate to 43% of new green electricity-generating capacity in the US, and experts anticipate that these figures could rise by up to 400% in the next decade. Without metal fabrication, it would be much more difficult to create a system to harness solar energy.
Currently, solar panels predominantly use silver. However, silver is expensive, making this option less accessible to the typical consumer who wants to go green. The amount of silver available also cannot build enough solar panels to facilitate a solar-powered world. With a worldwide focus on growing solar energy as a top power source, manufacturers have been seeking an alternative. They have found that fabricated metal products such as copper and aluminum offer a more cost-effective and efficient substitute to silver.
One advantage is that copper is readily available from mines and recycling plants, and the fabrication process is simple. Copper’s efficiency in heat and electricity conductivity also makes it an essential component for powering solar PV (photovoltaic) systems. Solar panels made from copper will likely last longer because this metal resists rusting and corrosion.
Alternatively, PV solar systems can be made from aluminum instead of silver or copper, thanks to its reflective properties. Aluminum and silver have the highest reflectance within the infrared spectral and ultra-violet ranges and can increase a solar panel’s efficiency by up to 22%.
- Wind Energy
Steel is the predominant material in wind energy, accounting for up to 79% of the total turbine mass. Aluminum and copper are also used in smaller amounts, but are both important in harnessing wind power. Metal fabrication companies offer a reliable supply of these metals and can even fabricate from recycled materials, helping to put an end to heavy metal pollution. Copper’s efficiency in electricity transmission makes it great for coils and cable, which can reduce the overhead costs of supply. That means wind-powered energy plants can offer competitive rates, attracting more consumers to green energy.
On the other hand, aluminum is highly efficient in the conversion of kinetic energy into electrical energy. Power plants can use aluminum to build the turbine core and rotor blades, taking advantage of its high strength and low weight and density. Furthermore, aluminum is resistant to harsh environmental conditions such as ultraviolet rays, perfect for a wind turbine that needs to be built for longevity and durability.
- Hydro Energy
Hydropower is the largest source of clean electricity in the US, accounting for about 52% of the nation’s green energy production and 7% of the primary grid. This energy source leverages moving water in streams, rivers, and ocean tides. Power plants use steel to reinforce dams to prevent the concrete from breaking or collapsing. In addition, steel-reinforced in hydropower dams is substantially economical and guarantees excellent resistance to strong water currents, hassle-free maintenance, and design flexibility.
Metal fabrication makes it possible for power generation companies to access thin layers of inexpensive metal products. Flowing water through these thin layers of metal could enhance efficiency in electric power generation. Innovative metal fabrication products can produce high currents and voltages, similar to graphene-based devices. These metals, such as cobalt and nickel, increase production and conductivity efficiency. This production proves sustainable if metal fabricators resort to single-step fabrication using earth-abundant metals as opposed to multi-step fabrication.
- Recycled Metal Products
Lastly, metal fabrication could benefit the renewable energy industry by increasing the use of recycled metal products. Recycling metals such as aluminum, cobalt, and nickel is easy, making them readily available for manufacturing. For instance, you can turn an aluminum product into a metal sheet, cube, or bar without losing any property in the process. Manufacturing with recycled material also uses 95% less energy than making new aluminum.
Moreover, mining bauxite (the ore containing aluminum) is energy-intensive and causes irreversible damages to the environment. Recycling translates to reduced production costs for metal fabricators and relatively affordable rates for manufacturing companies, all while benefiting the environment.
When power generation companies resort to relatively affordable system parts, the operation costs could also be sustainable. These companies can transfer the benefits of reduced operating costs to consumers through affordable energy costs. America will likely end up with many homes and factories connected to green energy grids to mitigate global warming and stimulate production.
What Does the Future Look Like for Metal Fabrication in Relation to Renewable Energy?
The demand for fabricated metal products will likely increase in the coming years as more Americans migrate to green energy. The industry may also experience a shift in the type of metals used for green energy production. Currently, the demand for aluminum is about 470%, while that of copper is 330%. Metal fabricators are always open to changes and technological innovations. Thanks to these milestones, the world could experience up to 79% demand for green energy by 2050. Also, it is essential to note that extensive geographical connectivity of green energy such as wind, solar, and hydropower will cut costs and reduce energy use. That means affordable products for the average consumer as companies cut their costs of operation. Most importantly, this transition will achieve or surpass the 1.5°C Paris global warming target.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, fabricated metal products are vital in manufacturing a supply of green energy within America and beyond. These renewable energy sources can eliminate the overreliance on carbon-intensive energy sources, helping to mitigate global warming emissions. With an increasing demand for green energy, the current outlook is optimistic that fabricated metal products will provide cost-effective parts and systems solutions in the renewable energy sector.