Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Car That Runs On Air

The auto industry is bracing itself for its biggest shift since Henry Ford used an assembly line to roll out Model Ts. The race to develop and implement a new kind of fuel - both environmentally-conscious and affordable - has been going on for years now, but we're still a while away from a full-scale gasoline overhaul. Ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, and lithium batteries are all vying for the title of gas killer, but there's a new contender making a lot of noise - and that contender is...air? Well, compressed air.

Moteur Development International (MDI) is a research and development firm that has tinkered with the concept of an Air Car for nearly fifteen years. Based in Nice, France, engineers at MDI now say their latest design, the MiniCAT - CAT stands for Compressed Air Technologies - is ready for production. More importantly, Tata Motors (India's largest automotive manufacturer) seems to concur, and have agreed to initially build several thousand of these vehicles, with plans for expansion in the next couple years for production both in India and Europe.

How it Works In a MiniCAT, compressed air is stored in a tank underneath the vehicle and funnels into pistons where it expands to about 15 times the compressed level. The de-crompression of the air creates pressure to push the pistons which propels the car. The expansion of the air also creates a by-product of cold air that can be used to run the air-conditioning. The end result is an efficient engine generating plenty of power and having zero emissions. The biggest hurdle for any new fuel is in its availability and distribution. Here air has an obvious advantage.

Compressed-air "pumps" are inexpensive to manufacture and implement on a large scale, and as a renewable and abundant resource, air fill-ups would be far cheaper than gasoline is today. Some estimate that a full tank of air - which for a MiniCAT is about 200 miles of driving - could be as little as $3. Also in development is the CityCAT, which uses a dual-function engine to generate higher speeds and a longer range. The compressed air system is still central to propulsion, but a second system is added that takes over at speeds over 35 mph. This system is similar to General Motors' Flex Fuel technology, meaning it can run on gasoline, biodiesel, ethanol, or other sources. When the second system is running it generates air that can be compressed and stored for later use by the central system.

Introducing it to the Populace MDI has built compressed air engines with 2, 4, and 6 cylinders and is looking for the best way to introduce their vehicles to the market.

One goal is a taxi fleet - after all, taxis drive a lot more than the rest of us and are a good way to generate buzz. MiniCATS seem built for the city, and with several urban hubs in Europe considering a ban on gasoline-powered vehicles, the air-powered vehicle could be a popular choice indeed. CityCATs, despite their name, are made more for the suburban commuter. The Tata Motors agreement is a major first step in a very long walk. The Indian manufacturer has quickly become one of the world's largest automakers, specializing in large trucks and buses. MDI has already built concept versions of pick-up trucks and vans for their fuel systems, and even larger vehicles are likely in the works. No final figures on pricing have been determined, but Tata and MDI estimate that MiniCATs would be around the equivalent of $10,000 in euros. Both vehicles are quick and nimble on city streets, with comparable acceleration to other economy-class cars. The higher-cylinder versions can provide more boost, but the MiniCAT tops out at around 68 mph, so it can get out on the freeway if it must. This flexibility would be more important in the U.S. should MDI expand production to our shores.

For more on these vehicles, check out MDI's website. Already some are beginning to eulogize gasoline as a thing of the past - ethanol and other resources are certainly gunning for it. But in this race for the future, a late entrant might have what it takes to win it all. Compressed air systems are easy to manufacture, distribute, and replenish. Time will tell if running on air will have an entirely new meaning. At AutoExtra.com we strive to bring you the latest and greatest happenings in the automotive universe. Stay tuned for more on the cutting edge of fuel technologies.