Published on May 26th, 2013 | by Important Media Cross-Post


Compressed Air Cars

May 26th, 2013 by  

This post first appeared on Gas2
by Christopher DeMorro


The search for an alternative fuel source other than oil should leave no idea untested. Still, there are some ideas with more potential than others, and some alt-fuel concepts are just plain strange. Compressed air vehicles have been around for around 150 years, but the technology has never caught on with automakers. There’s a reason for that, and it’s called torque, or the lack thereof.

Compressed air has been used to power engines since the mid-19th century, first gaining popularity in coal mines where combustion engines were deadly. Paris famously used pneumatic trains to help dig the tunnels of its vast metro and tunnel system. Pneumatic power even propelled the first naval torpedoes, though the first compressed air car companies did not last long.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped some recent upstart auto companies from penning their own plans for compressed air vehicles. Even Tata Motors, a massive Indian auto company, has pledged to build compressed air vehicles. Then there is the MDI AirPod, that odd-looking concept at the top of this post. But despite building working prototypes, there are a number of design flaws that keep air cars from going to market.

For one, compressed air motors don’t make as much power or torque as car owners are used to, meaning very low top speeds, often around just 40 mph. That is barely enough for city driving, and highway cruising is totally out of the question. It can also take many hours to fill the tank of a compressed air car, despite a seriously limited range, and problems with cooling the tank and heating the air make these vehicles quite power hungry.

The Peugeot Air Hybrid could return up to 117 mpg.

The Peugeot Air Hybrid could return up to 117 mpg.

Despite these drawbacks though, companies like Peugeot are still exploring the use of compressed air in a hybrid drivetrain setup, allowing for up to 117 mpg. Compressed air vehicles are also remarkably quiet and, discounting the air compressors themselves, produce absolutely no emissions. They’re also very, very cheap to operate.

This could make them ideal tourist buses or city service vehicles, but as actual commuters? Compressed air cars have a long, long way to go.

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  • cowboy 2012

    The weight of the air tanks and air motors would make the air powered cars heaver than electric cars. Weight is the enemy. Its good to pursue all options, but electricity seems to be the leader now. Fuel cells seem to be a future solution as a way to generate the necessary electrical power.

  • Christine T-D

    why so negative? commuters don’t all need a BMW. some of us are happy to take the train or bus or bicycle. When none of those work, this compressed air car sure beats gas prices, and is still fast enough.

  • kary

    It does not run on air ….. It runs on electricity that compresses the air ……

    • Christine T-D

      …electricity that CAN be generated using wind power.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Correct. Air is an energy storage system, serving the same role as batteries.

        I’m betting that it’s not an efficient way to store energy.

  • Xe.

    Say you were to take 4 of these little guys, stick them on an alternating drive shaft built to keep everything balanced regardless of speed and throttle. Suppose you use maybe 6 shapelier tanks, hybrid battery cells fitted and shaped to the body of the vehicle more appropriately, and solar paneling on the entire skin.

    Suppose you put it all in a diamond type caging and rimless tires with coaxial blades and adjustable landing, lifting off, and flight control, double rotor energy waste rotated back into the canisters. And it plugs in.

    Suppose It’s all possible, look up Pal-V One, and hover bike concepts out right now, while it would take years to develop, it can be done theoretically now. Use Airless tires Firestone patented. Lotus Effect.

  • Jay Dillon

    Excuse me, but do you really want to imply that air motors, such as those used in very small compressed air powered torque wrenches, have inadequate torque? Please look at EngineAir Australia Pty. Ltd., Angelo Di Pietro and associates. He has a rotary Wankel air motor with perhaps the highest torque to weight ratio of any engine in the world. Rotary Wankel air motors, powered by up to 10,000 psi carbon fiber air pressure tanks, can do anything gasoline engines can do, better, cheaper, faster and with far superior power to weight ratio, and very low parts count, thus extremely low maintenance costs if any. Rotary Wankel air motors are also perhaps the quietest motors available. Carbon fiber pressure tanks can be built “failsafe,” and are very lightweight. (A 10,000 psi carbon fiber air pressure tank does not weigh 10,000 pounds.)

  • Jay Dillon

    How do you write about compressed air motors without any mention of GM Cadillac Aera concept car, which won the Los Angeles Car Show, concept car division, 2010?

  • agelbert

    Compressed air MIGHT have a future in solar powered aircraft that need an extra boost for takeoff and climb out only. There would be no on-board heavy compressor to compromise performance.
    Ground equipment would recharge the boosters between flights.
    As a mater of fact, The Convair 640 turboprops of the 1970s had Rolls Royce engines with “jato” (jet asisted take off) bottles of compressed air to boost takeoff performance (WITH an on board compressior) so aviation is no stranger to compressed air propulsion.

    • Mark

      Not compressed air, it was a bolt on rocket assist. Google Aerojet

      • agelbert

        The JATO that you are referring to WAS a bolt on rocket. The F102 had one and other aircraft all the way back to 1940. The one used on the Convair 640 had the same initials but was recharged by compressors.

        “the forth Dart Convair customer, Caribair, had operated the first 640 service. Caribair’s seven aircraft retained the two JATO units previously fitted to their 340’s.”
        My Cousin was a captain on one of those. These were commercial aircraft. If they couldn’t recharge quickly when the rocket need to be fired to clear an obstacle, they would be pretty useless. Then again, maybe you are right and that’s why they stopped using them. My Cousin had given me the impression they could be recharged by on board compressors. Maybe he just wanted to make them sound more reliable. Either way, the boost was a temporary thing that required recharging, whether by a chemical or compressed air. Have a nice day.

        • Michael Jacobs

          I’ve seen the storage and use of JATO bottles up close and personal. In the early 70s I was stationed at McMurdo Navy Base in Antarctica as a photographer. I was also an aircrewman which kept me in the air from time to time. Twice in a short 4 month period I managed to get onto 2 separate LC-130 (with 1 ton skis). It was a shearing experience. Both time, the JATO bottle became “unbolted” – the first severed a wing and the 2nd pushed the plane forward at an odd angle, collapsing the nose gear… wheels. All survived both incidents. As a note, Willy’s Field runaway was on a chunk of ice. Only place I’ve ever seen snowplows shooting snow on the runway for traction.

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