E-Bikes have transformed both the Australian and global bicycle industries in terms of making them larger and, at least potentially, more profitable than ever before.
But two serious challenges are threatening to derail this growth. Of these, fire is the most acute right now. The second, battery recycling, is only just entering many industry members’ consciousness, because with the market being so new, only a small percentage of batteries have reached the end of their lifecycle.
With these challenges in mind, Bicycle Industries Australia organised a battery forum which was held during the Tour Down Under.
Convenor Peter Bourke opened the session by commenting that, “The media loves it… when there’s a new e-bike or e-scooter battery fire.” Then going on to give case study of an e-bike battery fire only the night before the forum was held.
“In 2021 we had the federal government change the importation system to make it easier to bring in lower quality e-bikes,” he reported.
“We’ve got a system now where we have varied regulations between the federal and state governments and variations between each state.
“We also have a national standard that is based on technology that is 17 to 20 years old. So we’ve certainly got a perfect storm in Australia in terms of regulations.
“As an industry we need to get our head around this conversation and we need to lead this conversation.”
Peter then introduced the first speaker, Will Atfield, who is Special Counsel at Clayton Utz which is one of Australia’s largest and oldest law firms. Will specialises in legal claims relating to lithium-ion battery fires.
He gave a summary of what e-bicycle manufacturers need to do to successfully defend themselves against claims resulting from battery fires. Although he did not mention e-bicycle retailers, logic would suggest these same things would apply.
“There are really a couple of key things that you need to be able to do,” he explained.
“The first is point out that you supplied a safe product – that your battery met all of the relevant standards. That it was tested and certified as safe for supply.
“The second is demonstrate that you provided sufficient warnings (to your customer) about how to store, charge, identify damaged products and treat damaged products.
“The third is to make sure that you warn of the risks of home replacement jobs (ie amateur modification of batteries or related systems) and have some way of encouraging people to go and see an authorised repairer. Not only in terms of the replacement product itself but the method of installation.”
The next speakers were Melanie D’Ambrosio, Senior Scientific and Environment Officer and Graham McInerney, Fire Investigator from South Australia’s fire service.
They showed a dramatic video of a lithium-ion battery fire that was staged for a university study, housed within a shipping container to contain the damage.
It demonstrated common features of lithium-ion battery fires – rapid escalation of the fire as more cells reach ‘thermal runaway’, toxic smoke and cells literally exploding.
“You can see the vapour cloud developing which is both toxic and flammable,” he commented as the video was playing.
“At this stage I wouldn’t be deploying any fire fighters to go in there to deal with that,” Graham said. “We do have firefighting techniques to cool that layer on top and to try and progress on it. We’d use the ‘surround and drown’ method, where we would protect any exposures around that lithium-ion battery pack that might be combustible. As we had more resources available, we’d pour copious amounts of water onto that battery pack.”
Needless to say, there’d be a lot of collateral water damage to whatever premises the fire occurs in.
The next video showed a real life e-bike battery fire, happening outside when the battery was still attached to a bike. There were projectiles, explosions and people making dangerous and futile attempts to try to save the bike from inevitable destruction.
Graham then described an incident he had attended where a mobile phone charging pad, sitting on an office desk, had caught fire. Fortunately, the office worker was not sitting at his desk at the critical moment. The charging pad was home made.
“That battery went across his seat and into the wall,” he said. “It put a hole into a Gyprock wall eight metres away… you don’t want to send fire fighters in when you’ve got these cells pinging around.
“When we find that lithium ion batteries are involved, which makes up 5% of our total fire attendances, we’re finding it’s overwhelmingly the case that people are tampering with the battery packs or importing online and making their own home-made systems.
“It’s quite uncommon that if people buy all of the components together and using it according to the manufacturer’s instructions, it is rare that we ever have an instance where those things fail,” he concluded.
E-Bike Battery Recycling Gets Underway in Australia
Moving on to less dramatic but equally important topics, the next speaker was Libby Chaplin who is the founder and CEO of B-cycle Battery Recycling an Australian not-for-profit, based in Tasmania, but operating Australia-wide.
“We’ve just done some research that shows that the number of lithium batteries that will be in use is increasing exponentially,” she said.
She showed a chart – in 2013 we had about 10,000 tonnes of battery waste with 12% of that being lithium batteries. In 2023 the total had increased to 20,000 tonnes and lithium-ion batteries accounted for 44% of the total, that’s a 733% increase in the past decade.
“This is going to increase even more significantly in future,” Libby predicted.
“B-cycle has been created to solve this issue. To create a circular economy for batteries.
“The way it works is that we have an import levy that’s voluntarily placed on batteries. Our focus at this point has been small consumer batteries and power tools, but we see the need to expand into the e-bike sector.”
She explained that retailers pass on that levy to their consumers, within the price of the product. It’s usually a very small proportion. Most of that levy goes to collectors, sorters and recyclers and B-cycle audits the process to ensure that the batteries are being properly recycled and not just dumped.
The final speaker was Ben Prichard from Envirostream. This is a wholly owned subsidiary of Lithium Australia Limited which is a publicly listed company trading on the Australian Stock Exchange.
Ben said that they already have Lithium ion battery recycling underway and are currently processing 3,000 tonnes of batteries per year.
“There is a solution for recycling e-bike batteries, here in Australia today. The industry is growing and developing. We’re right at the beginning of a large wave, but the solution is available now.”