The promise of air-powered cars
By Hank Green
Fri Jan 4, 2008
More than 10 years ago, a French Formula One expert had an idea: Instead of running cars on the chemical energy of gasoline, why not run them on the physical energy of compressed air?
Now that vision is extremely close to becoming reality.
Prototypes of the "air car" are already on the road, and several companies have licensed the technology. According to a BBC report, the first air-powered cars could roll off the production line later this year, for sale in India and Europe.
The cars are powered by plain old air, which is compressed in ultra-strong tanks. The air is then released through a couple of pistons in the engine, which drive the wheels. Current prototypes get a bit more than 1 horsepower, and can push the cars up to 70 mph for about 120 miles.
It's not in any way comparable to something you might go and buy on a dealer's lot today. But there are some significant advantages.
For one thing, it costs only about $3.00 to fill up the tank.
For another, the car has no emissions. In fact, the air coming out is significantly cleaner than the air in most cities.
Of course, it will take some electricity (from coal power plants, yes) to compress the air, but the carbon savings are still very significant.
The refilling process is simple and quick, assuming your gas station has been retrofitted with ultra-high-pressure air compressors. Several companies, most of them fairly small, have licensed the technology to produce the vehicles. One very large company, Tata Motors (India's largest carmaker), has plans to produce air cars, and has released several designs of upcoming models.
Tata is planning on creating a hybrid version that uses compressed air for driving at low speeds, and then switches over to gasoline if the driver needs a speed (or range) boost.
As for a U.S. release, we're going to have to wait a little longer.
Though the technology has been licensed here, it might be a while before the cars can match up to the safety regulations of the United States - or the voluminous desires of American consumers.
But for the rest of the globe, especially for emerging markets that need cheap transportation, this could be a fantastic alternative that truly makes the world a much cleaner place than it would otherwise be.