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Does the Air-Powered Car Really Work?
Adam Stein, 17 Sep 08

Yes, but it only runs on unicorn brea— no wait, it really does work.


Zero Pollution Motors is drumming up press again, with claims that an improved version of its “air-powered car” can travel 848 miles on a single tank of compressed air.

The comments in response to the New York Times article run to the skeptical side (“I bet it can fly too”), which seems a little bit ironic, because — unlike the water-powered car — the air-powered car is a perfectly respectable piece of technology. As air is released from a compression tank, it drives an engine that moves the lightweight foam-and-fiberglass vehicle. A similar idea is being contemplated on a much grander scale to generate steady electricity from intermittent wind or solar energy.

The question is not whether the air-powered car works, but whether it works well enough. As an energy storage mechanism, compressed air has certain built-in advantages over lithium ion batteries. An air tank is far cheaper than a battery, quicker to charge, and easy to maintain.

On the flip side, the air-powered car suffers from the same problems that have doomed so many other attempts to move beyond the internal combustion engine: limited range and a lack of refueling infrastructure. Zero Pollution Motors claims to have addressed the range issue with the addition of a small fuel-powered heater, which boosts the efficiency of the air engine. Although the heater gives the lie to the “zero pollution” claim, such a system still represents a considerable efficiency improvement over conventional gasoline-driven cars.

Nevertheless, skepticism is warranted. The company has been claiming that production versions of the air-powered car are just around the corner since 2000. This time, the claims might be better grounded in reality, but other companies haven’t been sitting still. In 2010, Zero Pollution Motors may be battling GM and others for dominance in the clean car market.

Adam Stein is a co-founder of TerraPass. He writes on issues related to carbon, climate change, policy, and conservation.

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I wrote a piece on the air car for Wired in 2002. ( It seemed like a goodish idea then, too, but the project has always had a bit of a strange smell. At the time they were trying to sell these franchise packages as a way to raise capitol. They were looking for people to buy exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute the cars in small regions. It seemed like a kooky and unlikely scheme.

As far as the car goes, there's been a lot of discussion and a whole lot of assertions on the part of ZPM, but these production vehicles just aren't materializing. I guess we should be patient--I can take a long time to bring a new technology to market, but I've long ago given up on ever expecting to see this thing on the street.

Posted by: BC Wilson on 18 Sep 08

As BC Wilson notes above, the Air Car for many years has always been "just 12 months away from mass production". This is usually accompanied by an offer for distributorships and manufacturing licenses.

It seems to be more of a Ponzi Scheme / Investment black pit than a real engineering effort. The only test data I've seen had the car only managing 7kilometers on a full tank of air. Nowdays, not even that test data is available on their website.

Compressed air is simply another energy storage method. Right now there are many other storage systems with better performance and price --- electric cars and hydrogen cars among them.

This company does indeed excel at getting good press.


p.s. Tata Motors recently announced that their Air Car is not ready for production and won't be anytime soon. This is in spite of MDI in January 2008 saying that Tata would be delivering production air cars in 2008.

Posted by: Charlie on 20 Sep 08

.......and, somewhere "along the line", there must be enough energy produced to accomplish the initial compression of the compressed air used to power such a vehicle, be it electrical generation, an internal combustion compressor, ect.
Of course, some companies (zpm, tata, whatever) produce enough "hot air" to propel their phantom products off into the setting sun....

Posted by: Larry Payne on 7 Oct 08



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