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Air Powered Cars: Just A Lot Of Hot Air?

If you’ve ever been to an auto repair shop, you’ve heard the whine and pop of pneumatic wrenches powered by compressed air.  Now that same technology is being harnessed to propel car engines.

The push toward lowering our reliance on petroleum and reducing our carbon footprint has brought us innovations such as hybrid vehicles and plant-based fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.  But few of us would have ever dreamt that something as all-pervasive as the air we breathe could be harnessed to power our vehicles.

Researchers have to dream big to stay on ahead of the pack on the racecourse of innovation. They’ll tell you that anything and everything is up for grabs when it comes to finding new ways to reduce our dependence on oil and lowering auto emissions.  To that end, air powered cars have become a reality.

Compressed air was first used a century ago to power mining cars, but until now it hasn’t been seriously considered as an alternative fuel source for modern vehicles.  How does it work?  Air is funneled into a compact space and compressed. When it’s released, it expands with a powerful force, driving the pistons of the engine.  In 2007, Tata Motors of India partnered with Luxembourg-based Motor Development International (MDI) to design a car with a compressed air engine.  The only other fuel needed will be the relatively small amount necessary to refill the air compressor.  The compressor will also heat the air to make it expand more effectively and can be run on a renewable fuel source like biodiesel.

The fuel cost for running the compressor for an air car is a paltry $2 for every 100 miles driven.  Compare that to $17.50 for every 100 miles driven in a 20 MPG gas vehicle at $3.50 per gallon, and you see the savings over time.  And that doesn’t even take into account the benefit to the environment from not burning all that gasoline.

Tata Motors is launching their air-powered vehicle, the MiniCat, in India at the end of this year with a price tag of $12,700. Toyota has also designed an air vehicle called the Ku Rin, which isn’t yet commercially available.  Depending on the success of India’s MiniCat, it’s only a matter of time before drivers in the U.S. will be able to purchase an air car of their very own, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “It’s just a bunch of hot air.”