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Can A Car Really Run on Air?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Can A Car Really Run on Air?

Levi Quinn
September 20, 2010

Levi Quinn

It seems like cars can run on just about anything these days, including electricity, hydrogen, and alcohol. The next big question is will automobiles be able to be fueled by air in the future?

The air engine is already here and it is very clean as far as pollutants go as it is an emission-free type of piston engine which is fueled by compressed air. An ex French Formula One engineer, Guy Negre was the first to invent a compressed air vehicle.

Pistons that are in a modified piston engine are driven by the expansion of compressed air. The engine is efficient because environmental heat at regular temperatures is utilized to slightly heat the cold, expanded air from a storage tank.

The air expansion can lead to a very efficient auto. As a bonus, the only exhaust that the car produces is cold air, at -15C. This can then be utilized to air condition the vehicle. The air is stored in a pressurized carbon-fibre tank and it is sent to the engine by a conventional injection system.

In fact, the concept was supposed to hit the market as the largest automaker in India, Tata Motors, was ready to begin manufacturing the first commercial air-powered vehicle in the world. The Air Car, which was developed by Negre for MDI, which is based in Luxembourg, is currently being worked on, but there have been difficulties with its final production.

If the Air Car works as planned, it should be able to reach about 68 mph with a range of approximately 125 miles. The cars will be able to refuel at petrol stations that have custom air compressor units. It is predicted that it will only cost a few dollars to fill the tanks of cars tanks with 340 litres of air at 4350 psi. It is also predicted that drivers will be able to plug into the electrical grid and refill the tanks in approximately four hours by using the built-in compressors of the auto.

Of course, with every invention like this, there are advantages and disadvantages. The main advantages of the air car are:

  • You can refuel at home and at petrol stations very cheaply with an air compressor.

  • The vehicles will be cheaper as manufacturers do not have to construct spark plugs, a cooling system, starter motor, and muffler.

  • The discharge rate of the battery is quite low. This means the cars can be left alone for long stretches of time and they will still have a charge.

  • When the air expands, its temperature cools down and it can be used as air conditioning for the car.

  • Hazardous chemicals such as metals or battery acids and gasoline will be reduced or eliminated all together.

  • Some designs may allow for energy by compressing and then storing air during braking.

    Some of the disadvantages include:

  • The indirect use of the energy as energy is required to compress the air, which then supplies energy to operate the motor. This conversion of energy between these forms will result in loss of energy. It will be lost as chemical energy is converted into electrical energy, which is then changed to compressed air.

  • The expanded air inside the engine will cool and needs to be heated to ambient temperature with a typical heat exchanger. The exchanger may freeze up in moist, cool climates when it attempts to heat the air.

  • Refueling the car with a small air compressor at home could take up to four hours. A compressor power of more than a Megawatt (1000 kW) would be required to fill the tank of the car in five minutes.

  • A compressed-air car is generally considered to be less efficient than a battery electric vehicle.

    While there are several companies working on designs, it still seems at the moment that the reality of the air car is still at least a few years away from being launched, if it ever makes the light of day at all.

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