Indo-German start-up deploys Audi e-tron’s used batteries to power e-rickshaws in India

The project aims to explore how modules made with high-voltage batteries can be reused after their car lifecycle and become a viable second-life use case.

The German–Indian start-up Nunam based in Berlin and Bangalore is bringing three electric rickshaws to the roads of India, which are powered by used batteries taken from Audi e-tron test fleet.

The project aims to explore how modules made with high-voltage batteries can be reused after their car lifecycle and become a viable second-life use case. It looks to strengthen job opportunities for women in India in particular: they will be provided with the e-rickshaws to transport their goods.

Nunam a non-profit start-up based funded by the Audi Environmental Foundation, has developed the three prototypes in collaboration with the training team at Audi’s Neckarsulm site. This is the first joint project between both Audi AG and the Audi Environmental Foundation in addition to Nunam.

The pilot e-rickshaws powered by second-life batteries are scheduled to hit the roads in India in early 2023. There they will be made available to a non-profit organisation, where women, in particular, will be able to use the all-electric rickshaws to transport their goods to market for sale, all without the need for intermediaries. The e-three-wheelers will be powered by used battery modules that spent their first life in an Audi e-tron.

Prodip Chatterjee, Co-Founder, Nunam said, “The old batteries are still extremely powerful. When used appropriately, second-life batteries can have a huge impact, helping people in challenging life situations earn an income and gain economic independence – everything in a sustainable way. Car batteries are designed to last the life of the car. But even after their initial use in a vehicle, they still have a lot of their power. For vehicles with lower range and power requirements, as well as the lower overall weight, they are extremely promising. In our second-life project, we reuse batteries from electric cars in electric vehicles; you might call it electric mobility ‘lite’. In this way, we’re trying to find out how much power the batteries can still provide in this demanding use case.”

He believes that “e-rickshaws have an ideal eco-efficiency.” Using a high-energy-density battery in a comparatively low-weight vehicle, the electric motor doesn’t have to be particularly powerful, since rickshaw drivers in India travel neither fast nor far. While e-rickshaws are not an uncommon sight on the roads of the subcontinent today, they often use lead-acid batteries, which have a relatively short service life and are often not disposed of properly.

At the same time, rickshaw drivers charge their vehicles primarily with public grid electricity, which has a high proportion of coal-fired power in India. Nunam’s solution for this is to charge the e-rickshaws using power from solar charging stations. The solar panels are located on the roofs of the local partner’s premises. During the day, sunlight charges an e-tron battery, which acts a buffer storage unit. And in the evening, the power is passed on to the rickshaws. This approach makes local driving largely carbon-free. The upshot: the e-rickshaws can be used throughout the day – and still be charged with green power during the evening and night. In India, where the sun shines all year round, placing solar panels on the roof is a no-brainer. The charging station was also developed internally.

Nunam says it will continuously monitor the e-rickshaw’s performance and range. The social entrepreneurs make all the e-rickshaw data they collect available to potential imitators on the open-source platform https://circularbattery.org/. In fact, it wants to encourage imitation.

Re-purposing batteries for multiple use-case

“Initiatives like the one pioneered by Nunam are needed to find new use cases for e-waste. Not only in India, but worldwide. So Nunam shares its knowledge to motivate more initiatives to develop products with second-life components that can drive the eco-social revolution forward,” said Rudiger Recknagel, Audi Environmental Foundation Director. The Foundation has been funding Nunam since 2019.

Moreover, after the battery has spent its first life in an Audi e-tron and its second in an e-rickshaw, it has not necessarily reached the end of the road. In a third step, the batteries’ remaining power might be used for stationary applications such as LED lighting. “We want to get everything possible out of each battery before recycling,” added Chatterjee.

In addition to the rickshaws intended for road use in India, the trainees at the Neckarsulm site are developing an additional show rickshaw in cooperation with Nunam. Visitors to the Greentech Festival in Berlin will get a chance to check it out – and even give it a test drive – from June 22. Under the guidance of Timo Engler, head of automotive engineering / logistics training in Neckarsulm, a 12-strong team of trainees is playing a key role in development. “The trainees and Nunam are in constant communication with each other – we have a dedicated line between Neckarsulm and Bangalore. In building the show rickshaw, our trainees are focusing on range, charging time, and design – the result is a rickshaw with Audi’s DNA,” said Engler. “To us, it’s important that the trainees are involved in the project from start to finish and are given the freedom to contribute and try out their own ideas. ‘Learning by doing’ is our recipe for success. At the same time, we impart fundamental knowledge in the development of electromobility, resource efficiency, and charging technologies in an almost playful, incidental way. It’s a ground-breaking project because it combines the megatrends of sustainability, electromobility, internationalisation, and social responsibility.”

The trainees replaced the combustion engine with an electric one and designed the underfloor to both accommodate the second-life batteries and be splashproof, using as many recyclable materials as possible all the while. Mechatronics technicians, coachbuilders, painters, tool mechanics, IT specialists and automation technicians were all involved in the project.

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