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Compressed Air Car - How About a Car that Runs on Air?

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Along with videophones, personal jet packs, and humanoid robots in French maid outfits, the futuristic daydream of a car that runs on air is something that Americans have pretty much abandoned. Well, we may have been a bit hasty. Thanks to a French inventor (and former Formula 1 engine designer) named Guy Nègre, the Air Car is one kitschy promise that looks poised to make the improbable leap from the pages of Amazing Stories to the pages of, well, Automobile Magazine.

Nè gre and his company, Moteur Développement International, have spent the last seventeen years realizing the dream of an air-driven automobile, their efforts centered on the clever yet startlingly simple compressed-air engine. It's compact and lightweight, it runs cool and requires only minimal maintenance, and - oh, did we mention? - it runs on air. Free, abundant, nonflammable, nonpolluting air. "The principle is simple," says Nègre. "Actually, all engines work with compressed air. Most engines suck air in and heat it up, then the air pressurizes and pushes on a piston. In our engine, we pressurize the air first, so when we apply it to the piston, the piston is pushed."

The compressed air comes from a group of longitudinally mounted tanks under the floor, pressurized to 4500 psi. The cylinders, supplied by the commercial-jet maker Airbus, are fabricated from carbon-fiber-reinforced composites, so, unlike typical scuba-style extruded-aluminum tanks, they won't turn into shrapnel-showering grenades in the event of a serious collision. The tank array takes less than four minutes to charge from empty at special high-powered refilling stations, or four hours using the on-board electric compressor. Either way, the tab for a fill-up should be no more than two bucks.

With a top speed of 68 mph and a 125-mile cruising range, the standard Air Car is suited only for urban-runabout duty. But Nègre and his son Cyril, a former Bugatti engineer, are working to develop faster, longer-range models that use an innovative hybrid version of the compressed-air engine. This "Dual-Energy" powerplant employs a heater burning gasoline, ethanol, or some other biofuel. At vehicle speeds above 35 mph, the burner kicks in and preheats the compressed air on its way from the tank to the engine, increasing its volume. The greater the volume of air, the longer the engine will run on a tank and the farther the car will go.

Global licensees - including New York-based Zero Pollution Motors (ZPM) - are lining up to build versions of the Air Car in their respective markets. ZPM plans to roll out a six-seat variant for North America by early 2010. With a sticker price of less than $18,000, the U.S.-spec Air Car will use a 75-hp Dual-Energy compressed-air engine to hit 96 mph and travel up to 850 miles on about eight gallons of fuel - that's 106 mpg.

Too good to be true? "Of course, skepticism is normal," says the elder Nè gre (who fittingly shares his birthday with French sci-fi visionary Jules Verne). "In fact, it's always easier to be skeptical than to think in a positive way." Now, about that French maid robot . . .