A hot new application for a 300-year-old technology
If work proceeds as scheduled, plants in the United States, Mexico, and France will be manufacturing vehicles powered by compressed air engines within the next year. No kidding.
The new engines are the brainchild of engineer and Formula One racing veteran Guy Negre and his team at CQFD Air Solution in Brignoles, France. Two other companies, Zero Pollution Motors, headquartered in New York, and a Mexican vehicle manufacturer, have also signed agreements to build the air-powered vehicles, according to Shiva Vencat, president of Zero Pollution Motors.
"Negre first established a company called Motors Development International (MDI) in 1991 to develop air-powered engine technology," explains Vencat. "Later, he started CQFD to commercialize the MDI technology. Today, MDI holds all 24 of the current patents, and Zero Pollution Motors has signed an agreement with MDI and CQFD to manufacture and sell their compressed air vehicles.
Cars, specifically taxis, will be the first vehicles to go into production, according to Vencat, followed by delivery vans, pickup trucks, and buses. Dual-energy engines that merge compressed-air power with more traditional combustion engine technology will come later to power heavier-duty trucks.
The lightweight, five-seat cabs look like mini vans, with sharply sloping hoods and sliding lateral doors. They will have a range of 120 miles or 10 hours and a maximum speed of 60 mph. The rear-mounted engine is "fueled" entirely by compressed air - 200 cu. ft. at 4,500 psi stored in onboard fiberglass and thermoplastic tanks. "Cities with pollution problems are particularly interested in the cabs," says Vencat. "Mexico City, for example, may begin replacing all their gasoline and diesel cabs with oil-powered cars.
"The engine is virtually silent and totally clean," he adds. "In fact, it actually emits cleaner air than it takes in because of its filter system." It's designed to be fueled either by a high-volume, high-pressure air compressor, which takes about three minutes, according to Vencat, or by plugging the onboard compressor into a household electrical outlet, a four-hour process. To enhance efficiency, the cars are also equipped with systems for ambient thermal energy recovery and for recovery of energy during deceleration and braking.
"Type homologation is under way and on schedule in Europe," Vencat notes. "The first plant should begin operation in France by the end ofthis year or early in 2000. We are currently working through a consultant here to assure that the cars will meet or exceed all U.S. DOT regulations. Of course, there are no emissions, so EPA engine emissions standards don't apply.
"Here in the United States, we plan to build several small plants located close to our markets," he continues, "with the first probably in upstate New York. People will buy vehicles, which will cost somewhere between $13,500 and $16,500, directly from the plant or via the Internet," Vencat adds. "That means the plant is also the dealership."
Skeptics of air-powered vehicles may point out that compressed air has not been what you'd consider an overnight, runaway success as an energy source. As early as the 17th century, a French physicist named Denis Papin is reported to have conducted experiments with the use of pneumatic power. It took another 150 years or so, however, before compressed air first found practical application. Have all the right factors and needs finally converged to bring pneumatic power to center stage? Perhaps, just perhaps, they really have. If you'd like to learn more, visit the Zero Pollution Motors Web site at: www.zeropollution.com.