Family using electric bicycle

How lithium is powering up the bicycle

Despite the recent surge in popularity, the electric bike has been more than 200 years in the making with its origins dating back to the late 1800s.


Last updated: 13 March 2024

 

For broadcaster OJ Borg, ditching the car in favour of an electric bike was a no brainer. He joined our General Manager of Technical Development Jared Osborne, host Dr Anna Ploszajski and bicycle expert Tony Hadland in our Things You Can’t Live Without podcast to discuss the rise in popularity of the electric bike and the role lithium plays in charging them. 

Episode 3 - OJ Borg's e-bike
Jared Osborne, OJ Borg, Dr Anna Ploszajski

From horsepower to pedal power, are electric bikes a new invention? 

Before we look at the origins of the electric bike, let’s look at where the pedal-powered bike started. Contrary to some beliefs, bicycle expert Tony Hadland says Leonardo da Vinci did not invent the bike. 

“The real ancestor of the bike was invented in 1817 in Germany and was known as a hobby horse - it was basically like a balance bike for adults,” Tony says. 

“The French revised the idea with pedals fixed to the front, but they were so uncomfortable they became known as bone shakers.”

The high wheel bicycle, or penny-farthing as it was more commonly known, came shortly after the bone shaker in an attempt to go longer distances with each turn of the pedal.

The bikes we ride today didn’t appear until the 1880s when chain drive technology was adopted. This basically allowed the wheels to rotate two or three times which each turn of the pedal.

When was the first electric bike designed? 

It wasn’t until 1881 that the first patent for an electric bike was taken out in France. 

“It didn’t go into production because this was only 10 years after the first rechargeable battery had been produced and the technology wasn’t good enough,” Tony says. 

“Over the following century many e-bike designs were tried in Germany, France, Netherlands and the US but none caught on in a lasting way.” 

In the US, that was a battery-powered bike which featured a motor inside the rear wheel and was patented in 1895 by Ogden Bolton Jr1.

Fast forward a century and Japanese automotive giant, Yamaha was at the forefront of electric bike innovation2 with investigations starting in the late 1970s. They had developed a prototype by 1989 and introduced the world’s first pedal assist system by 1993. 

In the UK, electric bike popularity only soared after legislation which treated  them like mopeds, requiring licences, road tax and insurance, was changed. But take-up remained low and even now lags behind places like the Netherlands and China.  

A boom in the 21st century

The 21st century marked a time of transformation and significant sales growth3 for the electric bike industry. During the COVID-19 pandemic, sales soared when the type of activity people could take part in was restricted. 

As our population grows, streets become more congested and, in a bid to reduce carbon emissions, many are ditching their combustion engine cars in favour of more sustainable transport, like electric bikes. 

One of those people is broadcaster, OJ Borg, whose electric bike is now his main form of transportation. 

“I can’t stand driving the car because it’s so much easier to take the bike,” OJ says. 

“I don’t have to worry about parking it - you can normally nip down bike lanes if you’re lucky enough to have them in the city you live in.”

How are electric bikes used today? 

As battery technology improves, electric bikes are becoming a more popular and practical choice for commuters and families globally. Besides the cost savings in comparison to an electric car, electric bikes also encourage physical activity and are a major step forward in reducing pollution when compared to other forms of transport. Cargo bikes, which allow riders to move family members, groceries, and other goods from a to b are also gaining in popularity. 

What are electric bikes made from? 

From the aluminium frame to the expanded polypropene used in the cargo boxes lugging children or goods around, there are several minerals and metals that go into a single electric bike. There’s aluminium in the wheels, likely stainless steel in the spikes and either natural or synthetic rubber in the tyres. But one of the most important elements of an electric bike is lithium.

Lithium is needed for low carbon technologies, like the batteries that power electric bikes. Discovered more than 200 years ago, lithium was initially used to lubricate greases and is now one of the main ingredients in the batteries that power electric cars and bikes. 

Do we have enough lithium to keep pace with electric bike demand? 

Lithium is a finite resource, which means once it’s mined and used, it’s gone. But our General Manager of Technical Development, Jared Osborne, says we have enough of it, it’s just a matter of getting to it. 

“There’s in the order of the order 80-100 million tonnes of identified lithium globally in about 400 different deposits. That should be more than enough to assist with the energy transition,” Jared says. 

“What we need to do to meet the demand is a combination of opening new  mines and ramping up existing mines. It will also be important that we access this additional production using renewable energy for the extraction.” 

Our lithium projects could help meet this demand as the world decarbonises. 

What’s the future for electric bikes? 

Just like electric cars, the variety of electric bikes continues to increase as technology improves and becomes more accessible. The electric bike market is expected to more than double by 2030. But community members are the real winners - as demand increases, so too does the need for more long-term infrastructure, like charging stations and bike ways. 

 

Want to learn more about lithium and its use in electric bikes? Listen to OJ, Jared, Tony and Dr Anna on Things You Can’t Live Without

  • Footnotes

    1https://patents.google.com/patent/US552271A/en

    2https://global.yamaha-motor.com/business/e-bike-systems/30th/

    3https://www.bicycleassociation.org.uk/news-press/ba-report-covid-cycling-boom-will-triple-e-bike-sales-by-2023/

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