Air Powered Cars Are Too Good To Be True


By Evan Ackerman

MDI Air Car

The media has been getting a lot of mileage out of compressed air powered automobiles, touting (in the midst of remorseless witticisms of the sort that I was just guilty of) the fact that air is both plentiful and environmentally friendly… But I don’t entirely agree. The following video, from the Science Channel, profiles Motor Development International’s forthcoming Air Car:

After the jump, I hope you’ll enjoy a brief rant about why this sort of thing doesn’t entirely make sense.

If you pause this particular video 1:33 from the end, you’ll notice a bunch of storage tanks accompanied by a box that looks suspiciously like an air compressor. The video talks about how cheap easy it is to refuel the car, but they go out of their way not to discuss in detail the fact that compressing air takes energy, energy which is likely piped straight from your local coal-burning power plant. Furthermore, you’re taking electrical energy and converting it to mechanical energy to compress the air, which is then stored and converted back into mechanical energy again in the car’s engine to drive the wheels. As anyone who has taken freshman physics will recall, every time you transfer energy from one type to another, you lose some.

So basically, compressed air is just being used as a storage medium for energy. It’s certainly true that other energy storage mediums (say, batteries or hydrogen) might be more expensive or more dangerous or both, but it seems as though when it comes to environmental impact (and perhaps even efficiency), a lot of these air powered car claims are just full of… nonsense. I applaud the fact that such innovations are being pioneered, but I feel like we (as potentially environmentally conscious consumers) deserve full disclosure as to what the total costs and benefits are, both environmental and financial.

[ MDI Air Car ]


  1. I’d like to point out that in France, where this video seems to have been shot, 78% of the electricity comes from nuclear plants (according to french wikipedia). They also state that you can plug in your car at home to recharge the car, which avoids intermediate storage (and thus energy waste).

    I’d also say that even if the energy comes from coal, it is a lot easier to maintain and monitor the pollution coming from tens of thousand of powerplants, than it is to properly maintain millions of cars. But that is true for a lot of other ‘alternative’ engines.

    It would also be interesting to see the noise levels of such engines. Seems low, but nothing beats electrical 🙂

  2. True, plugging in the car to charge it does take electricity (which may come from a coal-fired power plant).
    But the gasoline that you put in your car comes from a gas station that uses electricity, and that gasoline is refined using copious amounts of electricity from the same power plant.

  3. Looks like you’ve just stumbled upon the reason hydrogen cars are bullshit too. You have to create, transport, and store the hydrogen to use it. There is an extreme amount of energy loss and that energy has to come from somewhere, most likely fossil fuels.

    Electric cars have the most direct source of energy and the least loss. That’s the way things need to go IMHO. Anything else is a storage medium and therefore a loss. Augment electric cars with solar panels on your house and you can provide some, if not all, of your own energy using just the Sun.

    Amazing, huh? Seems a little too simple, that’s why it’s slow to take off.

  4. You are totally missing the point of these types of cars. Whether you use air, hydrogen, batteries, you are still better off. Each fossil fuel car is like it’s own little power plant inefficiently converting liquid to mechanical power and heat. Yes, when you store energy it has to come from somewhere. However, one big power plant can generate energy a lot more efficiently than millions of individual “power plants”. The power plant doesn’t have to be coal, power can be generated with wind, light, nuclear reactions, tidal changes, and water flow.

    In short, no, these cars are not a crap idea. We are better off centralizing where we produce our energy. At that point, we have our options open to any number of methods to produce that energy.

  5. When I first heard of these cars it was to be used in cities with bad smog conditions like Mexico City. That seems like a reasonable use but certainly not for everyone.

  6. Allow me to point out that energy can be obtained from renewable sources, like the sun for instance. Installing a solar panel for the express purpose of powering the car would negate the effects of assuming power from non-renewable sources, such as Power plants. Cynacism is good, dismissal out of hand is not.

  7. Wait till one gets in an accident….

    Compressed air is as DANGEROUS as dynamite. Every commercial vehicle that hauls compressed air bottles has to display hazmat signs.

    The ambulance-chasing lawyers will be drooling to sue the pants off of anyone selling or buying or allowing them to roll on the highways.

  8. So what do you guys want? a magical source of energy that doesn’t need to be stored, transported, converted, etc?

    I say it looks promising for some uses.

  9. Yes, electricity has some problems, but many advantages, as all alternative fueled vehicles will have. It will be a long time before we see an electric passenger plane, for instance, so we need to do what we can to postpone running out of some fuel sources as much as we can. Electric cars or air powered cars are just the tip of what we can do.

    The current hybrids are just a weak example of what is necessary, since they currently run on fossil fuels. We need to get further away from this fuel source. Better electricity storage, such as the ultra-capacitors from EEStor is better thinking and better technology and they could revolutionize EV development.

  10. Do you really believe there is global warming? If you look back about 30 to 33 years ago we were going to go into an ice age. It didn’t happen. The earth has its cycles, this is just one of them. I don’t think we have the power to change the climate. This is just put out by the DOOM & GLOOM pepole. Air power I feel is a very good way to go. At least someone is trying to come up with a solution to get away from our dependance on other countries for oil. We need to say the hell with the tree huggers and people who think animals have more rights than people, and start drilling. One of these days we will be shut down by other countries when they deceide to cut off our oil.

  11. perhaps the thing we should all do is revert back to horse and buggy, but then we would have to consider all those horses and the poop and methane they produce would open another can-o-worms on the environment in global warming. So, in conclusion to what Evan had to say, I say this.. until we all find a truly environmentally friendly, high efficient clean vehicle… either start walking, or obtain an air car. Seems right for me, and I will hope to obtain an air car when they become available. As for the global warming.. cyclical or not, probably so, but realize that the rain forrests are being cut down at such a phenominal rate per day, these rain forests provide weather paterns, clean air, oxygen for this globe we live on. I am not a tree hugger, but wish to clean up some how.

  12. How am I supposed to keep the wind from blowing this car away? We get on the norm west winds of about 80 to 100 Km/Hr Gusting to 110 or 120 Km/hr sometimes! Pretty much year round! It dosen’t look like a very safe vehical to be driving broad side to blizzard type winter winds in winter, or even on a hot July day when the wind is strong! Are we now saying ‘as long as it’s clean, go with it! To heck with safety!’ Let’s not compromize peoples lives with something that doesn’t make a whole lotta sence anyways!

  13. First let me say i like the idea of air powered cars. They may not be the solution to all transportation needs but with a range of nearly 200 miles they would fit nicely in most people’s daily driving habits. As for compressed air being hazardous, Gerry, it is NOT volatile. What you see being carried on trucks is compressed oxygen and other flamable gasses. Gasoline or hydrogen are much more dangerous in an accident. But the main advantage is that it frees the American people and the people of the world from dependence on oil for transportation. The enviromental impact would be positive inspite of the increase in demand for electricity. This is new technology…give it a chance for developement.

  14. Hmmmm… should have been developed years ago and probably would have been had it not been for sceptics and people with a vested interest in petrol sales.
    Wonder what resistance I would get if I tried to import one of these to the UK ?

  15. My understanding is that the tanks will be composed of fiberglass composites (similar to aircraft materials) that will allow the tank to simply split open in the event of a rupture and not explode like a metal tank (that you are describing) would.

  16. My understanding is that the tanks will be composed of fiberglass composites (similar to aircraft materials) that will allow the tank to simply split open in the event of a rupture and not explode like a metal tank (that you are describing) would.

  17. My understanding is that the tanks will be composed of fiberglass composites (similar to aircraft materials) that will allow the tank to simply split open in the event of a rupture and not explode like a metal tank (that you are describing) would.

  18. Using My solar 10KW solar / wind system to charge the vehicle every night, means pretty much a very low level of CO emissions, right?

    No hold on, isn’t batteries bad for the environment?

    Guess what I am using as a battery. Compressed air tanks!.

    Now, please work it out… Solar power converts to mechanical power, to pump up the air. I refill the car within minutes whenever I want to, from the tanks. No power needed from power companies here, right.

    Most of us that are environmentally good, do not like coal power, so based on that, you may want to rewrite the article, and think outside of the square.

    Did I mention that I can run and air powered generator to power my house from the tanks? … Gee this is too good to be true, I agree. It is indeed a breath of fresh air mixed with some sunshine all the way !!!

    No batteries included