Driving On Compressed Air: The Little-Known Compressed Air Revolution

From New Mind.

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In March 2020, Reza Alizade Evrin and Ibrahim Dincer from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s Clean Energy Research Lab pioneered an innovative vehicle prototype fueled by compressed air, using readily available components. This prototype showcased remarkable energy efficiency, reaching up to 90% of a lithium-ion electric vehicle’s efficiency and predicting a range of around 140 kilometers. While surpassable by current electric vehicles, the real breakthrough was the exclusive use of compressed air as an energy source.

The history of compressed air vehicles dates back to the early 19th century when the concept of harnessing compressed air’s power for vehicles emerged. Despite early breakthroughs like Louis Mékarski’s compressed air locomotive in the 1860s, practical applications were limited. Mining operations and tunnel constructions adopted compressed air vehicles due to their safety advantages, but they couldn’t compete with internal combustion engines.

Compressed air storage systems faced inherent flaws, with conventional methods wasting energy due to heat loss during compression and cooling during expansion. Adiabatic and isothermal storage techniques were explored to improve efficiency, particularly for utility power storage. Researchers like Evrin and Dincer delved into near-isothermal compressed air storage, enhancing thermodynamic limits for vehicle applications using phase change materials.

Advantages of compressed air vehicles include potential fourfold energy storage compared to lithium-ion batteries, direct mechanical energy conversion, quiet and lightweight turbine-based motors, and sustainability due to minimal toxic materials and reduced manufacturing complexity. Tankage solutions vary between low-pressure and high-pressure systems, utilizing lightweight composite tanks that are safer and cheaper to produce compared to batteries.

The challenge of designing efficient air motors led to innovations like EngineAir’s Di Pietro Motor, addressing torque inconsistencies through a rotary positive displacement design. However, achieving consistent torque across pressure ranges remained an obstacle.

Commercialization history saw ups and downs. French engineer Guy Negre proposed the idea in 1996, leading to prototypes like MDI’s "OneCAT" and partnerships with companies like Tata Motors. However, challenges including safety concerns and governmental support for electric and hybrid vehicles hindered mass adoption. MDI’s AirPod 2.0, introduced in 2019, featured hybrid refueling and improved speeds, yet production plans remained uncertain.

Despite the journey’s challenges, MDI persists in the pursuit of compressed air vehicle commercialization, aiming to revolutionize transportation with this sustainable technology.

Traveling Tom – 1906, HK Porter, Compressed air mine locomotive demonstration
Infinite Composites Technologies
Angelo Di Pietro