The good, the bad and the ugly: Compressed air-powered cars
Compressed air car engine is a new alternative to conventional internal combustion engines that is fighting for acceptance in the mainstream car market. Being environmentally responsive and a technology that involves low fuel production costs, this engine comes with many advantages. But, at the same time, there is no dearth of issues that challenges its acceptance in the mainstream. We are analyzing here the various aspects associated with it.
The best things about this engine is that it uses air as a fuel which is available in plenty. It is based on the same principle that governs an internal combustion engine, except for the air as fuel. Firstly, the air is compressed under high pressure and stored. The compressed air expands when released. This expanding air is then used to run the piston which powers the engine.
In contrast to electric vehicles, a compressed air car (CAC) can be left unused for longer periods. Some of the air cars are hybrid and sport electric motors as well. And, both the engines are optimally used according to need. This further enhances their performance. The operative cost of compressed air engines is low. According to an estimate, ”it may take as little as $2 worth of electricity to fill the compressed air tank.
Can this be better?
1. Yes. The CAC engine has the potential to compete with other cars on the market. But, this can be possible only when some major automobile producers start taking interest in this engine.
2. The energy used for compressing air and refueling the vehicle’s onboard tank should come from renewable sources, which can further reduce the environmental impact of such a car.
According to experts,: “Any conversion of energy between forms results in loss.” The CAC engine uses electrical energy to compress the air which again provides the energy to run the car. This leads to the loss of energy. Moreover, it has been said that this engine produces no pollution while on the road. However, some fear that conventional fuels like coal, gasoline, petrol or diesel may be used for running air compressors and thus cause pollution. The compressed air tanks can also be very dangerous during accidents
Can this be avoided?
1. The only way out is the use of another clean sources of energy — like solar,hydro, wind or nuclear– for air compression. This will substantially reduce the pollution level.
2. Air tanks should be made from carbon fiber and are designed in such a way that compressed air will escape during an accident instead of crashing.
The cars based on this engine cannot be used for long distances. A normal air compressor can take up to four hours for refueling and this can really be troublesome. It may take only three minutes for refueling at filling station. But it will be difficult to make such stations available everywhere. Moreover, a study by a team from UC Berkeley, ICF International, and Stanford University has found that the cars based on this engine are not more efficient than a battery electric vehicle(BEV). It also says that this engine produces more greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional gas powered car.
Why are we so critical?
The car based on this engine doesn’t provide an ultimate alternative to internal combustion engines. As far as comparisons are concerned, experts say: “The compressed-air car should be regarded as a car similar to the common BEV, powered by electricity from the grid but different in storage technology.” Moreover, it has been found to perform badly than the BEVs and there are concerns that ultra light weight cars made of this engine may not pass the stringent safety standards test.
A famous science fiction writer once said the cars of the future will run on air. Considering the kind of limitations that CAC engines have now, we cannot say by what time cars running on air will become common. The CAC engine has not yet passed the test of market because of apprehensions attached to its real-time performance. Yet, it cannot be simply written off as different organization are busy developing compressed air prototypes for various other applications. It may be possible that a hybrid air car get acceptance in near future.