According to its website, MDI insists that, compared with the most prevalent cars on the road–those powered by gasoline–its air engine is “far superior in terms of energy used and thermodynamics.”
At the core of all CAT models is a four-piston engine powered by compressed air that is stored in tanks at 4,500 pounds per square inch. The lightweight tanks, a thermoplastic container surrounded by a carbon-fiber shell, are made by Airbus Industries and hold nearly 3,200 cubic feet of air.
To propel the vehicle, compressed air from the tanks is injected into a small chamber, where it expands and cools. This expansion drives a downstroke of the piston. But as the ambient temperature begins to reheat the air in the first chamber, that air is forced into a second neighboring chamber, where it expands again to drive an upstroke. Using ambient heat helps capture more of the energy in the compressed air, ultimately improving the efficiency and expanding the range of MDI’s Air Car. And compared with four-stroke combustion engines, in which half of the strokes are wasted to pull air and fuel into the chamber, the air engine makes use of every stroke.
Ulf Bossel, a mechanical engineer consulting in Switzerland and organizer of the European Fuel Cell Forum, is cautiously optimistic. “I think there’s something to it,” says Bossel, one of the few who has performed a comprehensive analysis of MDI’s approach. Even though one of MDI’s compressed-air tanks would carry the energy equivalent of just one gallon of gasoline, the use of that air in the engine is 90 percent efficient.
The energy balance would improve substantially, he argues, if the compressed-air systems located at filling stations or in car owners’ garages were designed so that any waste heat during compression could be captured and used to produce domestic hot water, for example. If the compressors could interact with the grid and be programmed to only compress and store air during off-peak hours, or when solar and wind energy are in greater supply, the emissions profile of the Air Car would also improve.
“If you use clean electricity, it’s an absolutely clean system,” says Bossel, adding that compressed-air systems, despite being less efficient than battery-powered cars, have the advantage of being simple, cheaper to manufacture, and unconstrained by the degradation problems associated with current battery systems. “Still, there are some thermodynamic tricks you have to do,” he says.
To increase the range of the vehicle, MDI is also coming out with an optional dual-mode system that allows the car to run on fossil or biofuels–either when its speed exceeds 35 miles per hour or when the compressed-air tanks are empty. When in fuel mode, the car’s moto-alternator refills the tank with compressed air as the vehicle moves.