When the e-bike battery runs out of juice

E-mobility at Eurobike – Is there a second life for batteries?

Friedrichshafen – E-bikes have long since become part of everyday life on German roads. Whether for leisure, for commuting to work, as sporting equipment or as an alternative for goods transport in our congested cities, the e-bike offers attractive solutions for many areas of life. E-bikes are top-sellers and the motor driving the Germany cycle industry. This raises the question of what to do with the old battery packs. And It is also set to become a discussion topic at Eurobike, which is taking place in Friedrichshafen from 4 to 7 September.

In 2018, just under 24 per cent of bicycles purchased in Germany were electrically powered. According to details provided by the German Cycle Industry Association (ZIV), retailers sold a total of 980,000 models last year. Almost one in four of all new bicycles sold is therefore fitted with a rechargeable battery. The sharp growth in e-mobility means that the recycling and disposal of spent lithium-ion battery packs is becoming an increasingly important issue. A battery of this kind delivers its full output for a period of between two and five years – depending on the charge cycles and kilometres travelled. Then it gradually loses its power.

The greatest proportion still comes from lawnmowers, portable screwdrivers and the like. However, experts assume that the number coming from vehicles such as bicycles and scooters will soon overtake this figure. Retailer Thorsten Larschow, who runs a shop in Cuxhaven and is represented at Eurobike, thinks that in the near future almost everyone in the industrialized countries will own an e-bike. “In my view, the boom has yet to really take off.” Many of his customers whose battery pack no longer delivers the full output buy a new one and keep the old one as a reserve. “High-quality manufacturers, like Panasonic, Yamaha and Bosch, continue to offer all models”, Larschow reports. On the other hand, lithium-ion batteries that are faulty or considered to be too weak by the consumer end up in what is known as the Joint Battery Returns System (GRS). Their disposal in household waste is prohibited.

Just under 80 per cent of all e-bike producers are registered with this service company headquartered in Hamburg, which organizes the complete collection and recycling of batteries. In other words, these firms have undertaken to collect the old batteries through their specialist dealers and return them to the service company. “We then break them open and extract valuable raw materials”, explains Christian Henkmann from the distribution department. For e-bike batteries, the recyclability of the individual constituents currently lies between 50 and 70 per cent. “GRS then disposes of the rest in a proper and environmentally sound manner.” According to Henkmann, the industry is primarily interested in valuable raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and copper. Yet even the stainless steel case, the plastic parts and the cables are recycled. However, the entire scheme has yet to reach break-even point, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung writes.

And what are the prospects of a second life for battery cells from discarded e-bike battery packs? Christian Henkmann considers it unrealistic. “This reutilization in storage plants for regenerative energies – such as solar power – only makes sense with large car batteries”, says Henkmann. The twelve volts of a bicycle battery would provide far too little capacity for a power storage plant. “That would be just about enough to operate a small fan.”

Nor do the experts from GRS rate refresher firms that repair faulty batteries highly. “If the battery then goes on to catch fire, no manufacturer is going to continue providing a guarantee”, adds Henkmann as food for thought. Managing Director Yuqian Sun of Emina HT in the southern German town of Westhausen takes a different view. Her company wants to conserve natural resources, and its specialist services therefore include the repair of bicycle battery packs. According to her information, Emina HT works with manufacturers from all over Europe – and not with end customers. “If the PCB is faulty, you can simply replace it”, she explains. It becomes more difficult if the actual battery cells are defective. This is because as soon one cell ceases to function, the battery pack switches off for reasons of safety.

E-mobility specialists such as the BMZ Group headquartered in Karlstein am Main are pleased that it is now already possible to recycle more than 50 per cent of an e-bike battery pack. “We are on the right track”, says Key Account Manager Ulrich Stiller. At Eurobike, the BMZ Group will be introducing the new standard V 10 battery, which not only has a large range but is also smaller and lighter than the old model and can be “installed in different drive systems”, as Stiller explains. Also accompanying this is a standard charging device.

Hannes Neupert, Executive Director of the Extra Energy competence centre in the German state of Thuringia is an advocate of standardized batteries for electrically powered cycles, including a standardized interface for charging, as is already common for modern mobile telephones. After all, if the new motor were no longer to fit into the old frame, the only option would be to throw away the bike. Retailer Thorsten Larschow considers that rather excessive. From his experience, even older drive systems can be still be retrofitted with battery packs – at least in the case of the high-quality suppliers.

As a leading global trade fair, Eurobike is directed towards a specialist public on the three working days from 4 to 6 September and to all bike fans with the Eurobike Festival Day on Saturday, 7 September 2019. You will find further information at www.eurobike-show.com and www.facebook.com/eurobike.tradeshow.