By Allen Penticoff
While seeming like one of those fantastical notions from the pages of Popular Science or Mechanix Illustrated from the 1930s (and may well have been), the idea of an air-powered car has actually been kicked around by engineers for quite some time. Jules Verne even predicted air-powered cars in his 1860 book, Paris in the 21st Century.
The theory is simple. All internal combustion engines operate on compressed air, it’s just that the source of the compressed air comes from burning a fuel to heat up the air.
Steam locomotives heat up air and water to high pressure in a boiler, then send it to pistons to actuate the wheels.
The air-powered car, in principle, is not too different from the steam locomotive. The difference being that the air is compressed and stored in carbon fiber tanks under the vehicle and released to operate the engine.
French engineer Guy Negre and his son, Cyril, have been working on the technical issues of bringing a practical, commercially-viable air-powered engine to market since 1991. His family-owned company, Luxembourg-founded Motor Development International SA (MDI), is based in the south of France with corporate offices in Barcelona, Spain. Several prototypes have been built, and the engines and systems continue to evolve.
Although a major contract has been signed with India’s big Tata Motors to build the vehicles, the license is mostly about the engine design. Negre’s hope is that the One FlowAir and similar cars (think flower) will not be produced by the thousands at one big factory, but rather in a dispersed system where local entities will build the vehicles with 80 percent locally-sourced materials, and then sell the vehicles direct to the consumer. This model would save vastly on fossil fuels used in transport of materials and the product, as well as reduced buying costs to the consumers.
The first One FlowAir cars are expected to sell for about $15,000. This well may be true, not needing expensive batteries or electric motors. These could be built in any Rock River Valley community. Dozens of companies are signing up to produce these environmentally-friendly cars. Zero Pollution Motors is the company to build them in the United States.
The cars, vans and pick-up truck prototypes show the technology is scalable, although most built so far are small and light-weight. Visualize an extraordinarily lightweight Kia Soul with a rust-free fiberglass body. The motor in operation only expels cold air and a low motorboat sort of noise.
While the air might be free, compressing it will take some energy. Already they have designed gas station equipment that can fill the carbon fiber tanks in two to three minutes for a cost of about $1.40 for 62 miles worth of driving. A built-in compressor allows it to be plugged in to 220 volts, filling the tanks in about four hours.
They have been working on regenerative compression that would charge the tanks when the vehicle is coasting or braking—thus extending its already considerable 180-mile range. Present prototypes have a top speed of 68 mph, with a goal for more than 80 mph in future models. An option may be air heaters using many fuel sources to heat the air in the cylinder (as in an internal combustion engine) to extend driving range when needed.
The point is that this is another way of storing energy similar to an all-electric car. Surveys have repeatedly shown that most commutes are less than 40 miles per day—therefore, the One FlowAir could conceivably take you to work all week without a refill. But like pure electric and plug-in hybrid cars, most owners refill the “tank” (aka batteries) every day, leaving more flexibility in using the vehicle.
Technologically, the One FlowAir (originally they were called One CAT Air Car, but Caterpillar Corp. had a fit about the name—so they changed it) is up with modern times. To begin with, since the “exhaust” is nothing but cold air, it can be used as the air conditioner. It has modern computer systems with all sorts of connectivity, and the electrical system is not unlike modern high-performance aircraft.
One wire supplies power to everything, with control of electric items like the lights being by wireless radio transmissions to controllers at the unit.
Of the five designs they are showing, some have up to six seats. One drawing board design is an air-powered bus/train. They speculate the cost of operation may be so low, this public transportation may be free!
While the source of energy to compress the air needs to be clean for it to be pollution-free transportation, such as nuclear power or renewable energy, there is great potential in this emerging technology. Zero Pollution Motors’ mission statement says what I like to hear, “To bring zero pollution motoring at any speed, for any distance, to the largest number of motorists possible and, in doing so, significantly improve the quality of the air we breathe and reduce our collective carbon footprint.” To that, I say, “amen.”
From the Nov. 17-23, 2010 issue