From hobby to lifestyle: How an Elon professor built his own electric bike

Alfred Simkin, an instructor of biology at Elon, discusses his several year journey to build an alternative vehicle for commuting: an electric bike.

By Elizabeth Kirkhorn ’18

You won’t find Professor Alfred Simkin pulling his vehicle into the McMichael parking lot each weekday. Instead, he parks it beneath a series of solar panels next to the greenhouse — an unconventional parking space for an unconventional method of transportation.

"I've found the electric bike makes biking much more enjoyable," says Simkin.
Simkin, an instructor of biology, has been working on his electric bicycle for several years. The idea was born of Simkin’s love of tinkering; he was once given a solar panel as a gift and spent subsequent months learning how to power a car battery from the panel’s electrical currents, and run a computer off of the car battery. 

After four or five months of experimenting with the limits of his solar panel, Simkin became acquainted with an electric bike salesman. “He talked about how great electric bikes are because they use much less energy than a car does,” Simkin recalls. “To go 400 miles on an electric bike uses somewhere between $5 and $10 of electricity. Whereas in terms of a car, an ebike gets the equivalent of more than 1,600 miles per gallon.”

Simkin was hesitant to invest in an electric bike right away. Instead he got involved in something else recommended to him by the same salesman: a group called the Ithaca Generator, which provides makers the space and resources to explore. Using the tools afforded to him by this makerspace, Simkin experimented with circuitry and determined that he could power an electric bike off of his well-loved solar panel. Given the length of his commute, he was able to power his bike for three days worth of rides to work with only one day of sunlight. 

Alfred Simkin shows off the photo-electric trailer that charges his bike.
​“I found it moderately useful to charge my electronic devices off of my solar panel, but being able to power my bike was much bigger. It feels very useful,” explains Simkin. “If I have a choice between running all of my devices off of solar energy for one day, or powering my commute for two days, I will definitely choose the commute.”

Simkin says he “finally treated himself” to an electric bike when he became a member of the Elon faculty, with a courseload that includes classes on cell biology and genetics. The ebike took shape as Simkin outfit his existing bike with electrical equipment ordered online for about $900 .

Elon’s Maker Hub deserves some thanks for the success of Simkin’s electric bike. He used the Hub’s Anderson powerpole system and a special pair of ratcheting crimping pliers when building the solar charging station behind the greenhouse. He credits Scott Wolter, a professor in Elon’s engineering department, who advised an Elon student in the construction of the photo-electric trailer used to charge the bike. 

Simkin’s bike can go 10 miles on a charge when traveling at 30 miles per hour, or 25 miles on a charge at a speed of 15 miles per hour. The comfortable speed is a factor in the usefulness of the bike itself, according to the maker. 

“I’ve found the electric bike makes biking a lot more enjoyable and potentially safer, because its speed allows me to view myself as another car on the road, instead of a bicyclist who keeps getting passed on narrow roads,” Simkin attests. 

The bike is also built to last. Its motor is durable and “hard to break,” as Simkin puts it, although he expects some of the components will wear out with time and use. He is familiar with fellow electric bike enthusiasts who have been riding the same apparatus for seven years without difficulty. 

Simkin believes the electric bike has implications beyond just the mechanical.

“It would be amazing if everyone in the Elon community was riding an electric bike as an alternative to driving,” Simkin says. “The electric bike is only a fraction of the cost of a car, and doesn’t need insurance. It would be safer for people on the road, because if you crash into someone on a bicycle, it will be almost certainly less damaging than if you get run over by a car. It makes me so much happier to be on a bike than in a car. I feel so much more a part of my surroundings, and if I see someone I know, I can say ‘Hi!’ to them and have them hear me. In situations where the road is closed, I can make adjustments because the bike can go places that a car can’t. If you factor in the huge environmental and cost benefits, the bike always wins out.”

Simkin is now exploring the possibility of making his bike more efficient and lighter. He’s also researching why the electric bike has lower crash rates than traditional bikes in countries with prevalent ebike usage, and has a fatality rate about one-fifth that for cars based on distance traveled.