Driving on Air

 With rising gas prices and Peak Oil fast approaching (if it hasn't happened yet), droves of experts are feverishly working on alternative fuel solutions for automobiles. You may have heard of hydrogen or ethanol as gasoline substitutes, but both of those have their own challenges.

Hydrogen is very popular with environmentalists as fuel of the future because of its cleanliness. However, most hydrogen today is made from natural gas (see "Gas Crisis Next?" below), and the final product has only 50% of the energy value of its source... which makes the idea of producing hydrogen using current methodologies ludicrous in terms of energy-saving and fuel efficiency.

Hydrogen is also the hardest gas to compress and may have to be liquefied to be stored effectively. On the other hand, liquid hydrogen would escape from your car's tank at a rate of 3-4% per day. That means every minute you don't drive, your fuel is just sitting there, vaporizing.

Ethanol, which can be mixed with gasoline, is made from renewable grain and vegetable sources, such as corn. While this initially sounds good, keep in mind that one bushel of corn (about 56 pounds) produces only 2.7 gallons of ethanol. And as slate.com recently reported, two professors--one from Cornell University, one from Berkeley--proved that "making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains." And it would be expensive, too: At a gas station, filling up with ethanol could easily cost 6 or 7 dollars per gallon.

Any other ideas, anyone?

In fact, there is another concept for alternative fuel that may just be what the world has been waiting for. A French manufacturer has been working on (and completed) the world's first air car.

Running on Compressed Air Technology and therefore called CAT, the new urban car developed by Moteur Developement International (MDI) has zero emissions.

The compressed air that powers the two-stroke engine is stored in "light-weight tanks [that] are made of carbon fiber and hold 200 liters of air at a pressure of 4,351 pounds per square inch (p/si)," stated a recent report on the Science Channel. "With this amount of air, the car can travel 150 kilometers [93 miles] in the city."

"Air is forced through an injector where it expands, pushing down on pistons that turn the crank shaft to power the car. The engine is also specially designed to [allow] multiple engines to be joined together, giving the car more power. Which means, each air car model comes with the option of a 2-, 4- or 6-cylinder engine."

Fueling up is easy: You fill the tank by plugging into a normal electric outlet at home, which takes about 4 hours. Cost: 1.50 euros ($2.36).

If you don't have that much time, it takes only 3 minutes to fill your tank with a high-pressure air pump at a gas station ("air stations" have yet to be designed). MDI estimates that this will increase the cost of a full tank by 40 to 60 percent--resulting in a whopping $3.53. The same distance (93 miles) traveled in a gasoline-powered car costs Americans around $12 these days.

Sounds too good to be true?

Well, there is a catch: The CAT can only reach a speed of 68 mph and is therefore best suited for urban traffic. Also, while the engine runs solely on compressed air at speeds of 37 mph or less, at higher speeds it still depends on traditional fossil fuel. However, environmentally (and financially) conscious urbanites may embrace this little vehicle as the city car of the future. [To watch the Science Channel report, click here.]

Four models are available so far--a car, a taxi (5 passengers), a pick-up truck and a van. MDI expects to produce 3,000 CATs per year for now, with a final selling price of around $8,670.

A mass launch in the U.S. is not yet planned, but if you're interested in buying one of the prototypes, you can join a list on MDI's website: http://www.theaircar.com/models_iwantone.html

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Posted 05-02-2006 6:10 PM by Doug Casey