An Air Car You Could See in 2009: ZPM’s 106 MPG Compressed-Air Hybrid

Compressed-Air Powered cars could take you over 800 miles on a single fill-up, at speeds of up to 96 mph. They should refuel in less than 3 minutes, and at speeds over 35 mph emit about half the CO2 of a Toyota Prius. Best part? You could see them in the US at the end of next year.

Car-tech aficionados may already be familiar with Zero Pollution Motor’s (ZPM) compressed-air powered car. For those that haven’t heard of it yet, read on:

“The compressed air vehicle is a new generation of vehicle that finally solves the motorist’s dilemma: how to drive and not pollute at a cost that is affordable!”

What happens when you replace the explosions in your car’s combustion chamber with clean compressed air? Well, as long as you lighten things up by replacing heavier parts with aluminum, you end up with a clean, efficient way to power a vehicle.

The world’s first commercial compressed-air powered vehicle is currently being produced by India’s largest automaker, Tata Motors, who is licensing the technology from European-based company MDI (a company powered by the innovation of ex-Formula One engineer Guy Nègre). They anticipate having about 6000 of these vehicles on city streets in India in 2008.

How does an Air Car Work?

Although potentially revolutionary it really isn’t that complicated. What a compressed-air car does is use the force of super-compressed air to move the engine’s pistons up and down, as opposed to explosions produced from injecting a small amount of fuel.

To get things moving on compressed air, weight reduction is a top priority. MDI’s aluminum-based engine weighs half what a normal engine does, and the frame is also built out of lightweight materials (US version will be aluminum?).

ZPM’s US model will store about 3200 cubic feet of compressed air in carbon fiber tanks at 4500 psi. Carbon fiber tanks are used for safety reasons since they tend to split open (as opposed to explode) when punctured.

Compressed air from the tanks will run directly to the engine under speeds of 35 miles per hour. That means that under 35 mph the car qualifies as a zero emissions vehicle. At higher speeds the engine will burn a small amount of fuel to create more compressed air, sort of like how a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt produces on-the-fly electricity. The hybrid air-car setup should be able use any number of fuels, including gasoline, propane, or ethanol.

1 tank of air + 8 gallons of gas = 848 mile range

The car’s compressed air tank can be refilled in about 3 minutes from a service station. To fill it up at home the car would be plugged in, where an onboard compressor would refill the tank in about 4 hours, at an electrical cost of about $2.

If you aren’t sure whether turning electricity into compressed air is really that clean, here are some numbers: at speeds over 35 mph the air car emits about half the CO2 per mile as a 2007 Toyota Prius (0.141lbs of CO2 per mile, while that the Toyota Prius emits 0.34 lbs of CO2 per mile).

Will we actually see a US-model Air Car in 2009/10?

New York startup ZPM, like Tata motors, has licensed technology from Luxembourg-based MDI. MDI also has plans to release these cars in Europe in 2-, 4-, and 6-cylinder models, starting under $15,000.

Despite lightweight construction that could be of concern for passing US safety tests, it appears that air car technology could be available in the US in late 2009. ZPM told earlier this year that it expects to produce the first US model air car at the end of 2009 or early 2010. (Btw, ZPM’s model is also a candidate for the $10 million Automotive X Prize.)

ZPM wants to produce a 6-seater, 75-hp model with a 1000 mile range at 96 mph, all for just $17,800.

The big question I think we all have is: will this car make it through US safety testing? ZPM’s website says that air car models will meet the same safety specifications of all cars driven in the US. As with most of these new hyper-efficient models we’ve seen (like Aptera’s Typ1 or VW’s 1L Car), ZPM claims the vehicle’s “tubular body provides increased resistance in the event of a crash.” The car will also come with Air Bags and ABS braking.

It’s another case of wait-and see, and we can only hope ZPM follows through.

For more info, check out a great youtube video about air cars (embedded below):

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(7.15.2008, Clayton B. Cornell)