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conductor basics

What are Conductors?

Conductors are the center of the cable, carrying energy and electricity from one point to another. They sound fairly simple, but there are several factors that can affect the conductor.

Conductor Materials

As far as materials go, copper and aluminum are the most common conductors used in wire and cable. Both are affordable and work well for most applications.

Copper is known for its great conductivity and is often used because it transfers signals and electricity quickly. Though it is less conductive than copper, aluminum is also a common conductor material. It weighs less so it can be made into long strands. Aluminum conductors are also the least expensive.

Bare copper is a versatile material that can be used across a wide range of environments and conditions and in a number of industries. Although it is relatively inexpensive, it exhibits excellent electrical performance. Bare copper conductors can be used effectively in many applications, but your copper options don’t stop there.

Copper conductors can be combined with other metals to enhance certain mechanical and chemical properties necessary for different cable jobs. For example, bare copper can be dipped to create a tinned copper conductor. The coating of tin is useful in applications where concerns include current flow, corrosion, and the possibility of soldering the wire to another component.

A tinned copper conductor is a good choice if the operating temperature will be between 100°C and 150 °C because the corrosion resistance of bare copper is likely to decline at these high temperatures. In this case, the tin adds a layer of protection against corrosion and can make the wire last longer. The layer of tin can also make soldering easier without adding significant cost to a project.

Conductors can also be plated with nickel or silver. Silver is the most conductive metal, but it's rarely used on its own because of its high cost. However, silver-plated conductors offer some of the same benefits. A silver-plated wire has improved conductivity and can be used from very low temperatures up to 200 °C. This wide temperature range is important for aerospace applications. 

Nickel-plated conductors also work well in extreme conditions and are commonly used in high-performance cables. Nickel-plated conductors provide excellent corrosion resistance and functionality up to 750°C if the layer of nickel is thick. High-performance cables may use high strength alloy conductors. These alloys are strong, durable, and suited for cables that must perform in challenging environments. Typically, high strength alloy conductors are either nickel or silver-plated as well.

Types of Conductors

There are types of conductors: solid and stranded.

Solid wire is cheaper than stranded and is mechanically tougher, but stranded conductors are much more flexible. Solid and stranded conductors both have their benefits, so choosing the right one will depend on the needs of your specific application. The same goes for the material options that are commonly available for conductors. Make sure to consider all of the requirements of your application when choosing the conductor that’s right for you.