It’s not every day that you get to speak to a true expert in any field. So it was fascinating to hear the predictions of an ebike consultant who is an expert in battery technology.
Valentin Muenzel was born in Germany, but spent four years growing up in Australia. Then returned to Germany to finish school, then on to the UK where he did Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Engineering.
Now he’s back in Australia completing a PhD in lithium ion battery technology at the University of Melbourne.
He has been working as a consultant with Reid Cycles since the start of 2015, for reasons that he explained to Bicycling Trade.
“Reid Cycles identified ebikes as an interesting trend that is definitely growing overseas and starting to grow in Australia,” Valentin said. “Reid decided to be very proactive and take part in bringing ebikes to Australia. In doing so, it’s a fundamentally different technology to standard bikes. There are a lot of components they’re not used to. Even the assessment of which bike is good, which bike is bad, what are customer segments, is completely different.
“I had a background in electric bikes, having played around with building my own bikes out of conversion kits for about two and a half years. So we started talking and I started helping Reid out in terms of defining the products that might be good for them.”
Given his German heritage it’s not surprising that Valentin recommended Reid distribute a German bicycle brand.
Valentin continued, “I may be a little biased, being German, but Corratec is a southern German brand, and coupled with the Bosch power train, it’s a quality product. Being a new technology it’s always beneficial to go towards something that’s higher quality.
“As the technology you will then see products coming out, maybe at a lower price point, that are competitive. But initially with new technology, you want something that’s top notch.”
“With battery technology, in the media we hear lots about new batteries here or there. But the truth of the matter is, lithium ion batteries, which are the batteries that we use in our phones, in our laptops and now in electric bikes and electric cars, they were first commercialised by Sony in 1991. So it’s 20 odd years between then and now to become as safe and reliable as they are.
“Yes you will see new batteries developed in the lab, but to become consumer products, that will take quite a while. As a result, I think regarding the amount of energy that can be stored in a given space or given weight, you will see incremental improvements, but nothing super-dramatic over the next few years.
“What we are seeing though, is that because more and more batteries are being produced, and because we’re getting much better at manufacturing them, the cost per unit is dropping dramatically.
“Originally we could just afford having a small battering in a camcorder or a mobile phone. Now we’re talking about things like bikes that have a much bigger battery pack.
“The motors don’t tend to age much, so it’s only the batteries that see degradation over time. The batteries in the Bosch power trains are top notch systems. It’s a chemistry called NMC: Nickel Manganese, Cobalt, and that’s mixed with another chemistry which is the same sort of mix that you get in a BMW I3 Electric Car or a Nissan Leaf.
“As a result the batteries have a two year warranty from Bosch to say they will have at least 70% of their capacity left after this period. And that’s a warranty, so your expectation can be that the actual capacity will be notably higher.”
“At Reid we’ve gone with the bigger batteries. Right now Bosch offer a 300 watt hour pack and a 400 watt hour pack and we’ve only gone for the 400. My understanding is that Bosch is working on a 500 watt hour pack.
“It’s difficult to predict future battery prices for small packs like ebike batteries, because the batteries are a component, but there’s a lot of other stuff going around it.
“When you take larger battery packs such as home installations and electric vehicles, there we’re seeing dramatic price drops. Between about now and 2020 we will see a cost drop of maybe up to half. And then between 2020 and 2030 a further drop of half again.
“But that’s for the individual battery cells themselves. And predictions are always risky, so be aware of that.
“I’ve written an article about this in journal called the Conversation, where I’ve looked at the trends and predictions that a whole lot of analysts have made, and that’s my conclusion.”
Meanwhile Valentin does not see his future solely in the bicycle industry. In fact he’s a partner in a venture capital funded tech start up company that could become a major multinational.
“I’m in the final stages of my PhD now,” he said. “At the same time I’m running a company called Relectrify. We have developed custom technology that allows us to take old batteries, say from an electric bike after you’ve been riding it for a few years and it doesn’t give you the range any more. We can take these out, install them in our packs and use them for solar energy storage, where it’s not so critical that they have their full capacity.
“We’re looking to use these for solar energy storage in Australia. But also for countries like India where to power grid is very poor. We’re working with partners over there.
We’re looking at partners right now. Australia is particularly interesting because we have a lot of sunshine. We also have over 1.4 million houses with solar power panels. And those houses, as soon as the government incentives run out in terms of getting paid to feed electricity back to the grid, they will want to have some form of storage so they can store the power until the evening when they want to use it. So Relectrify will be an interesting ride!”