Students aim to reimagine transportation through electric bike social enterprise

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Electric bikes, or e-bikes, look just like regular bicycles. However, e-bikes have a battery-driven motor attached to them that supplies power to the bike. This allows riders to choose to either pedal like on a traditional bike or assist their pedaling with power from the battery. Through the project, student researchers hope to provide an enterprise that will make electric bikes as economical and accessible as possible.

Nikhil Bharadwaj, a Penn State senior majoring in energy engineering, started researching the e-bike industry as a sophomore. In the fall of 2015, Nikhil attended a community meeting focused on solar energy in the State College area where he met Joseph Cusumano, a professor in Penn State's Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

“Nikhil and I started talking, and when I mentioned electric bikes, he asked me what they were,” Cusumano said. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Bharadwaj and Cusumano started meeting on a regular basis to discuss research methods, how to get project funding and exploring the e-bike conversion process in general. During a summer research project in 2016, the idea for Project BYOB was born. After more than a year of research and brainstorming, the project was officially founded under the Penn State chapter of Enactus on March 15.

Enactus, a nonprofit that connects student organizations with a wide range of corporations, has chapters at more than 1,000 universities worldwide. By working with Enactus, Project BYOB has connected with major retail corporations. Through these connections, the group aims to be able to buy their equipment wholesale and potentially market any conversion materials they themselves engineer.

“People, planet, profit. Project BYOB has a triple-pronged approach,” Bharadwaj said. “I realized that few people know how available e-bikes are and how convenient it would be to get a regular bike converted. When I started with this project, my heart knew that this information needed to be everywhere.”

Going the (shorter) distance

One of the aims of Project BYOB is to alter the preference for cars, especially for shorter trips. Statistically, private vehicles account for 60 percent of trips under one mile. By replacing these cars with e-bikes, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that would be saved would equate to taking 400,000 cars off of the road.

“Every day, people drive two-ton boxes to go grab a couple of pounds of groceries,” Cusumano said. “Project BYOB aims to make more energy efficient, as well as healthier, modes of transportation easily accessible.”

Internationally, e-bike manufacturing is a rapidly growing industry worth an estimated $16 billion per year with more than 30 million e-bikes sold in China. However, e-bikes account for only 1 percent of the bicycle market share in the United States.

“Around half of all trips taken are less than five miles, and around 1 percent of all trips are taken on bicycles,” Bharadwaj said. “With this project, we’re trying to see a change in this happen.”

Good for the environment, but good for consumers, too

The conversion process developed by the BYOB researchers is designed to be economical for the consumer. Though fully functional electric bikes can be purchased directly from retailers for an average price of $2,000, the cost of a bike conversion through Project BYOB is currently around $500.

Bharadwaj said that the battery life or “fuel economy” of e-bikes built by Project BYOB varies based on design choices, as well as user settings and behavior. A typical rider using only battery power can expect to ride about 20 miles on one charge. These variables can also change depending on the type of power system a rider wants for their bike. Systems designed for pulling heavier loads, for example, might require a higher capacity battery to achieve the same range as a system designed solely for a commuter bike.

Moving forward, with Penn State Enactus

During the summer of 2017, the students of Project BYOB completed their first official bike conversion, and have had three clients with others lined up. Following these initial conversions, the students plan on expanding the project into a social enterprise. They are taking steps towards creating a business that will provide not only a local service, but eventually a national or even global one.

One of the campus groups Project BYOB plans on serving is the Student Farm. The Student Farm currently utilizes pickup trucks and vans in order to transport their produce to local markets and campus dining halls. Coordinators involved are excited about the prospect of using solar powered e-bikes as a more energy-efficient form of transportation, as well as to provide off-grid power for tools, laptops, and communication devices on the farm.

“The Student Farm moves people, supplies and produce between the farm site and campus throughout the year. An electric bike will be a great asset to help us move people and produce around in a more sustainable way,” said Leslie Pillen, sustainable Student Farm design coordinator. “The e-bike is a great way to demonstrate out-of-the-box thinking on how we can reduce our carbon footprint while still efficiently and effectively delivering high-quality fresh produce.”

Since Penn State partnered with Zagster on its bikeshare program in the summer of 2017, the Project BYOB developers see this as a crucial time for changes in transportation standards on campus and beyond. Both the students and the project advisers are excited to see just how far-reaching Project BYOB can become.

“We’re not exactly sure where we’re going,” Bharadwaj said, “but we’re definitely going up. The only question will be how far.”

In addition to Bharadwaj, students involved in Project BYOB include Chris Edgett, Connor Cunningham, Ellis Driscoll, Gurm Singh, Nick Sessler, Ryan Kelly, Simran Lala, Steven Polis and Vatsal Agarwal. Cusumano acts as the adviser of the project.

Last Updated December 08, 2017