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A French-designed car that’s propelled by compressed air and claims speeds of more than 60 miles per hour is expected to go into commercial production as early as this summer, although skeptics of the technology aren’t holding their breath.

Using compressed air, they argue, may mean zero tailpipe emissions, but it’s unlikely to provide enough range or speed to appeal to the masses, particularly in North America. “Compressed air does not contain much energy–that’s the killer,” says Larry Rinek, senior research analyst for automotive technologies at consultancy Frost & Sullivan. “This is more a nice garage project for a Popular Science subscriber.”

But the dream lives on. Motor Development International (MDI), based near Nice, France, has developed several prototypes of its Compressed Air Technology (CAT) car since its first engine was created 14 years ago. Now company founder Guy Negre, an aeronautics engineer who developed a high-performance racing engine for Formula 1 in the late 1980s, is counting on India’s largest carmaker, Tata Motors, to bring his highly anticipated Air Car to market later this year.

The Air Car was supposed to hit the streets years ago, but its release always seems just around the corner. MDI announced in 2002 that the cars would be used to replace taxis in Mexico City, but nothing resulted.

Tata’s involvement this time around, combined with the fact that oil recently hit $100 a barrel, could change the game. India’s largest automaker announced last February that it had struck a deal with MDI to further develop and refine Negre’s compressed-air engine technology, with the intention of producing and selling the emission-free cars in India. It has since been reported that Tata invested nearly $30 million in MDI as part of the agreement.

“The recent manufacturing push is in response to the contract that MDI signed with Tata,” confirmed Kevin Haydon, a spokesman for Zero Pollution Motors, based in New Paltz, NY. He says that the company plans to manufacture CAT vehicles in parts of the United States around 2010, through a license with MDI.

Zero Pollution has even entered the car in the multicity Automotive X Prize competition, where in 2009 more than 30 teams–including electric carmakers Tesla Motors, Phoenix Motorcars, and Malcolm Bricklin’s Visionary Vehicles–will compete on the fuel efficiency of their vehicle designs.

The Air Car may do better than fuel-cell cars, but experts say that using grid power to charge a battery-powered electric vehicle is much more efficient than using electricity to compress and store the same amount of energy in a tank. “The main problem is that air gets hot when you compress it, so much of the energy input goes into raising the temperature of the air as you try to raise the pressure,” explains Doug Nelson, a professor of mechanical engineering and an expert on advanced vehicle systems at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

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Credit: Motor Development International

Tagged: Energy, energy, emissions, gas prices

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