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Does the air-powered car really work?

Zero Pollution Motors is drumming up press again, with claims that an improved version of its “air-powered car” can travel 848 miles on a single tank of compressed air.

The comments in response to the New York Times article run to the skeptical side (“I bet it can fly too“), which seems a little bit ironic, because — unlike the water-powered car — the air-powered car is a perfectly respectable piece of technology. As air is released from a compression tank, it drives an engine that moves the lightweight foam-and-fiberglass vehicle. A similar idea is being contemplated on a much grander scale to generate steady electricity from intermittent wind or solar energy.

The question is not whether the air-powered car works, but whether it works well enough. As an energy storage mechanism, compressed air has certain built-in advantages over lithium ion batteries. An air tank is far cheaper than a battery, quicker to charge, and easy to maintain.

On the flip side, the air-powered car suffers from the same problems that have doomed so many other attempts to move beyond the internal combustion engine: limited range and a lack of refueling infrastructure. Zero Pollution Motors claims to have addressed the range issue with the addition of a small fuel-powered heater, which boosts the efficiency of the air engine. Although the heater gives the lie to the “zero pollution” claim, such a system still represents a considerable efficiency improvement over conventional gasoline-driven cars.

Nevertheless, skepticism is warranted. The company has been claiming that production versions of the air-powered car are just around the corner since 2000. This time, the claims might be better grounded in reality, but other companies haven’t been sitting still. In 2010, Zero Pollution Motors may be battling GM and others for dominance in the clean car market.

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