Compressed air car

Compressed air car

A compressed air car is a car that uses a motor powered by compressed air. The car can be powered solely by air, or combined (as in a hybrid electric vehicle) with gasoline, diesel, ethanol, or an electric plant with regenerative braking.





Compressed air cars are powered by motors fueled with compressed air, which is stored in a tank at high pressure such as 30 MPa (4500 psi or 300 bar). Rather than driving engine pistons with an ignited fuel-air mixture, compressed air cars use the expansion of compressed air, in a similar manner to the expansion of steam in a steam engine.

There have been prototype cars since the 1920s, and compressed air has been used in torpedo propulsion as well.

Storage tanks

In contrast to hydrogen's issues of damage and danger involved in high-impact crashes, air, on its own, is non-flammable. It was reported on Seven Network's Beyond Tomorrow that on its own,[clarification needed] carbon-fiber is brittle and can split under sufficient stress, but creates no shrapnel when it does so. Carbon-fiber tanks safely hold air at a pressure somewhere around 4500 psi, making them comparable to steel tanks. The cars are designed to be filled up at a high-pressure pump.

Energy density

Compressed air has relatively low energy density. Air at 30 MPa (4,500 psi) contains about 50 Wh of energy per liter. For comparison, a lead–acid battery contains 60-75 Wh/l. A lithium-ion battery contains about 250-620 Wh/l. Gasoline contains about 9411 Wh per liter.[1]; however, a typical gasoline engine with 18% efficiency can only recover the equivalent of 1694 Wh/l. The energy density of a compressed air system can be more than doubled if the air is heated prior to expansion.

In order to increase energy density, some systems may use gases that can be liquified or solidified. "CO2 offers far greater compressibility than air when it transitions from gaseous to supercritical form." [2]


Compressed air cars are emission-free at the exhaust. Since a compressed air car's source of energy is usually electricity, its total environmental impact depends on how clean the source of this electricity is. Different regions can have very different sources of power, ranging from high-emission power sources such as coal to zero-emission power sources such as wind. A given region can also update its electrical power sources over time, thereby improving or worsening total emissions.

However a study showed that even with very optimistic assumptions, air storage of energy is less efficient than chemical (battery) storage.[3]


The principal advantages of an air powered vehicle are:

  • Refueling can be done at home using an air compressor[4] or at service stations. The energy required for compressing air is produced at large centralized plants, making it less costly and more effective to manage carbon emissions than from individual vehicles.
  • Compressed air engines reduce the cost of vehicle production, because there is no need to build a cooling system, spark plugs, starter motor, or mufflers.[5]
  • The rate of self-discharge is very low opposed to batteries that deplete their charge slowly over time. Therefore, the vehicle may be left unused for longer periods of time than electric cars.
  • Expansion of the compressed air lowers its temperature; this may be exploited for use as air conditioning.
  • Reduction or elimination of hazardous chemicals such as gasoline or battery acids/metals
  • Some mechanical configurations may allow energy recovery during braking by compressing and storing air.
  • Recent findings from Southwest Research Institute indicate that air-hybrids would allow for up to 50 percent better fuel economy and an 80 percent reduction in emitted toxins compared to conventional engines[citation needed]. Sweden’s Lund University also reports that buses could see an improvement in fuel efficiency of up to 60 percent using an air-hybrid system[6] But this only refers to hybrid air concepts (due to recuperation of energy during braking), not compressed air-only vehicles.


The principal disadvantage is the indirect use of energy. Energy is used to compress air, which - in turn - provides the energy to run the motor. Any conversion of energy between forms results in loss. For conventional combustion motor cars, the energy is lost when chemical energy in fossil fuels is converted to mechanical energy, most of which goes to waste as lost heat. For compressed-air cars, energy is lost when chemical energy is converted to electrical energy, when electrical energy is converted to compressed air, and then when the compressed air is converted into mechanical energy.

  • When air expands in the engine it cools dramatically (Charles's law) and must be heated to ambient temperature using a heat exchanger. The heating is necessary in order to obtain a significant fraction of the theoretical energy output. The heat exchanger can be problematic: while it performs a similar task to an intercooler for an internal combustion engine, the temperature difference between the incoming air and the working gas is smaller. In heating the stored air, the device gets very cold and may ice up in cool, moist climates.
  • Conversely, when air is compressed to fill the tank it heats up. If the stored air is not cooled as the tank is filled, then when the air cools off later, its pressure decreases and available energy decreases. The tank may require an internal heat-exchanger in order to cool the air quickly and efficiently while charging, since without this it may either take a long time to fill the tank, or less energy is stored.
  • Refueling the compressed air container using a home or low-end conventional air compressor may take as long as 4 hours, though specialized equipment at service stations may fill the tanks in only 3 minutes.[4] To store 14.3 kWh @300 bar in 300 liter reservoirs (90 m3 of air @ 1 bar), requires about 30 kWh of compressor energy (with a single-stage adiabatic compressor), or approx. 21 kWh with an industrial standard multistage unit. That means a compressor power of 360 kW is needed to fill the reservoirs in 5 minutes from a single stage unit, or 250 kW for a multistage one.[7] However, intercooling and isothermal compression is far more efficient and more practical than adiabatic compression, if sufficiently large heat exchangers are fitted.
  • The overall efficiency of a vehicle using compressed air energy storage, using the above refueling figures, is around 50-70%[citation needed]. For comparison, well to wheel efficiency of a conventional internal-combustion drivetrain is about 14%,[8]
  • Early tests have demonstrated the limited storage capacity of the tanks; the only published test of a vehicle running on compressed air alone was limited to a range of 7.22 km.[9]
  • A 2005 study demonstrated that cars running on lithium-ion batteries out-perform both compressed air and fuel cell vehicles more than threefold at the same speeds.[10] MDI claimed in 2007 that an air car will be able to travel 140 km in urban driving, and have a range of 80 km with a top speed of 110 km/h (68 mph) on highways,[11] when operating on compressed air alone, but in as late as mid 2011, MDI has still not produced any proof to that effect.
  • A 2009 University of Berkeley Research Letter found that "Even under highly optimistic assumptions the compressed-air car is significantly less efficient than a battery electric vehicle and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional gas-powered car with a coal intensive power mix." However, they also suggested, "a pneumatic–combustion hybrid is technologically feasible, inexpensive and could eventually compete with hybrid electric vehicles."[12]

Crash safety

Safety claims for light weight vehicle air tanks in severe collisions have not been verified. North American crash testing has not yet been conducted, and skeptics question the ability of an ultralight vehicle assembled with adhesives to produce acceptable crash safety results. Shiva Vencat, vice president of MDI and CEO of Zero Pollution Motors, claims the vehicle would pass crash testing and meet U.S. safety standards. He insists that the millions of dollars invested in the AirCar would not be in vain. To date, there has never been a lightweight, 100-plus mpg car which passed North American crash testing. Technological advances may soon make this possible, but the AirCar has yet to prove itself, and collision safety questions remain.[13]

The key to achieving an acceptable range with an air car is reducing the power required to drive the car, so far as is practical. This pushes the design towards minimizing weight.

According to a report by the U.S. Government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, among 10 different classes of passenger vehicles, "very small cars" have the highest fatality rate per mile driven. For instance, a person driving 12,000 miles per year for 55 years would have a 1% chance of being involved in a fatal accident. This is twice the fatality rate of the safest vehicle class, a "large car". According to the data in this report, the number of fatal crashes per mile is only weakly correlated with the vehicle weight, having a correlation coefficient of just (-0.45). A stronger correlation is seen with the vehicle size within its class; for example, "large" cars, pickups and SUVs, have lower fatality rates than "small" cars, pickups and SUVs. This is the case in 7 of the 10 classes, with the exception of mid-size vehicles, where minivans and mid-size cars are among the safest classes, while mid-size SUVs are the second most fatal after very small cars. Even though heavier vehicles sometimes are statistically safer, it is not necessarily the extra weight that causes them to be safer. The NHTSA report states: "Heavier vehicles have historically done a better job cushioning their occupants in crashes. Their longer hoods and extra space in the occupant compartment provide an opportunity for a more gradual deceleration of the vehicle, and of the occupant within the vehicle... While it is conceivable that light vehicles could be built with similarly long hoods and mild deceleration pulses, it would probably require major changes in materials and design and/or taking weight out of their engines, accessories, etc." [14]

Air cars may use low rolling resistance tires, which typically offer less grip than normal tires.[15][16] In addition, the weight (and price) of safety systems such as airbags, ABS and ESC may discourage manufacturers from including them.

Developers and manufacturers

Various companies are investing in the research, development and deployment of Compressed air cars. Overoptimistic reports of impending production date back to at least May 1999. For instance, the MDI Air Car made its public debut in South Africa in 2002,[17] and was predicted to be in production "within six months" in January 2004.[18] As of January 2009, the air car never went into production in South Africa. Most of the cars under development also rely on using similar technology to Low-energy vehicles in order to increase the range and performance of their cars.


APUQ (Association de Promotion des Usages de la Quasiturbine) has made the APUQ Air Car, a car powered by a quasiturbine.[19]


MDI has proposed a range of vehicles made up of AirPod, OneFlowAir, CityFlowAir, MiniFlowAir and MultiFlowAir.[20] One of the main innovations of this company is its implementation of its "active chamber", which is a compartment which heats the air (through the use of a fuel) in order to double the energy output.[21] This 'innovation' was first used in torpedoes in 1904.

Tata Motors

As of January 2009 Tata Motors of India had planned to launch a car with an MDI compressed air engine in 2011.[22] In December 2009 Tata's vice president of engineering systems confirmed that the limited range and low engine temperatures were causing problems.[23] Meanwhile any related articles or connections to MDI have been deleted from the website of Tata Motors, including in the archive.

Air Car Factories SA

Air Car Factories SA is proposing to develop and build a compressed air engine.[24] This Spanish based company was founded by Miguel Celades. Currently there is a bitter dispute between Motor Development International, another firm called Luis which developed compressed-air vehicles, and Mr. Celades, who was once associated with that firm.[25][26]


The Energine Corporation was a South Korean company that claimed to deliver fully assembled cars running on a hybrid compressed air and electric engine. These cars are more precisely named pneumatic-hybrid electric vehicles.[27] Engineers from this company made, starting from a Daewoo Matiz, a prototype of a hybrid electric/compressed-air engine (Pne-PHEV, pneumatic plug-in hybrid electric vehicle[citation needed]). The compressed-air engine is used to activate an alternator, which extends the autonomous operating capacity of the car.

The CEO is the first compressed air car promoter to be arrested for fraud.[28]

A similar (but only for braking energy recovery) concept using a pneumatic accumulator in a largely hydraulic system has been developed by U.S. government research laboratories and industry, and is now being introduced for certain heavy vehicle applications such as refuse trucks.[29]


K'Airmobiles vehicles were intended to be commercialized from a project developed in France in 2006-2007 by a small group of researchers. However, the project has not been able to gather the necessary funds.

People should note that, meantime, the team has recognized the physical impossibility to use on-board stored compressed air due to its poor energy capacity and the thermal losses resulting from the expansion of the gas.

These days, using the patent pending 'K'Air Fluid Generator', converted to work as a compressed-gas motor, the project should be launched in 2010, thanks to a North American group of investors, but for the purpose of developing first a green energy power system.


Engineair is an Australian company which manufactures small industrial vehicles using an air engine of its own design.[30]


In 2010, Honda presented the Honda Air concept car at the LA Auto Show.[31]

See also


  2. ^
  3. ^ Air cars under testing but are they efficient?,
  4. ^ a b "Car runs on compressed air, but will it sell?". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  5. ^ "Advantages of compressed air as an energy vector". Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Stationary Compressors,
  8. ^ "Comparing Apples to Apples: Well-to-Wheel Analysis of Current ICE and Fuel Cell Vehicle Technologies, p.15". Argonne National laboratory. 
  9. ^ Sebastian Braud (2007-03-21). "MDI refilling stations". Archived from the original on 2007-03-21. Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  10. ^ Patrick Mazza; Roel Hammerschlag. "Wind-to-Wheel Energy Assessment" (PDF). Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  11. ^ "MDI Enterprises S.A". Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  12. ^ Economic and environmental evaluation of compressed-air cars, Environmental Research Letters.
  13. ^ By A. Pawlowski CNN (2008-08-08). "106 mpg 'air car' creates buzz, questions". Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  14. ^ Charles J. Kahane. "NHTSA Technical Report" (PDF). United States Department of Transportation. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  15. ^ "Low-rolling-resistance tires". Consumer Reports. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  16. ^ "Planned EU Requirements for Tires Would Reduce Road Traffic Safety". Continental AG. Retrieved 2008-09-12. [dead link]
  17. ^ Kevin Bonsor (2005-10-25). "How Air-Powered Cars Will Work". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 2006-05-25. 
  18. ^ Robyn Curnow (2004-01-11). "Gone with the wind". London: The Sunday Times (UK).,,1-120-957436-120,00.html. Retrieved 2006-05-25. 
  19. ^ APUQ - Association de Promotion des Usages de la Quasiturbine
  20. ^ Learn everything about the compressed air cars!,
  21. ^ "MDI's active chamber". Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  22. ^ "Tata Air Car to drive in by 2011". Popular Mechanics. 
  23. ^ TaMo’s ambitious ‘Air Car’ faces starting trouble,
  24. ^ "The Air Car". Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  25. ^ "WARNING". Motor Development International. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  26. ^ "CLARIFICATION". Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  27. ^ Phev (pneumatic hybrid electric vehicle),
  28. ^ Digital Chosunilbo (English Edition) : Daily News in English About Korea[dead link]
  29. ^ "Bosch Rexroth Named Subcontractor for Hydraulic Hybrid Refuse Truck Field Test, Bos". 2007-05-16. Retrieved 2010-12-12. 
  30. ^ Matt Campbell (November 3, 2011). "The motorbike that runs on air". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2011-11-07. 
  31. ^ Honda Air concept car

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