Engineering graduate launches electric bike company
By David Staudacher
Ravindra Kempaiah was an avid marathon runner when he lived in Maryland, but a knee injury led him to research new exercise and transportation options. That’s when he took an interest in electric bikes and their batteries.
“I got into biking more because I couldn’t run,” said Kempaiah, who just graduated from UIC with his PhD in mechanical and industrial engineering. “When I saw the electric bike technology, it just blew my mind. I could go 100 miles for cents of electricity.”
That led him on a path to UIC and ultimately to launch a start-up company called Zen Electric Bikes in Canada, where he is now serving as a postdoctoral researcher at Dalhousie University under professor Jeff Dahn, the Tesla Canada Research Chair.
After discovering electric bikes, Kempaiah’s fascination intensified to the point where he wanted to prove the efficiency and capability of these bikes and their batteries on a grand scale. In 2016, he rode an electric bike from Madison, Wisconsin, to San Diego, California, to set a Guinness World Record for the longest journey on a motorized bicycle.
“At the end of the journey, it was 5,100 miles. I calculated how much electricity it took to travel that distance across the U.S., and it was less than $6,” Kempaiah said. “There are not a lot of vehicles on the planet that can travel 5,100 miles for less than $6. I thought, ‘This is the future electric mobility.’”
After setting the world record, he decided to pursue battery research further, and landed as a PhD student working under the direction of Arunkumar Subramanian, associate professor in the Laboratory for Integrated Nanosystems at UIC, and Subramanian Sankaranarayanan, associate professor at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.
“I learned a lot about batteries, and how they work and what is cutting edge in battery science,” Kempaiah said. “Our goal at UIC was to completely eliminate expensive nickel and cobalt from batteries and just use manganese.”
During this time, Kempaiah’s passion for electric bikes increased as he rode his bike from UIC to Argonne. Now, he has turned that passion into Zen Electric Bikes, which he calls “a battery company that makes e-bikes.”
“The goal is to promote sustainable urban transportation. We are building highly reliable, safe electric bikes that could replace cars in the urban environments,” he explained. “Many students may not be able to afford a car. However, they can afford a $1,500 e-bike, and that would suffice for eight months of the year in colder climates. It provides 50 miles of range, and it costs 7 to 8 cents to charge the battery pack.”
With Zen, Kempaiah’s goal is to ensure the pack battery packs last more than six or seven years and more than 50,000 miles, while remaining safe and reliable. In addition to bikes, he sees the boundless potential of the battery power being developed to power homes and the electrical grid.
“Once we prove the battery technology, we want to get into snowmobiles, electric boats, and home storage. You have to have the fundamentals of battery building ready, and then you can scale it up,” he said.
Learn more about MIE’s graduate study opportunities at Graduate Programs.