Feasibility of using Compressed Air for

energy storage in cars’

28th Oct  2010 (edited 13th Nov 2010)


I was initially sceptical about the potential of using compressed air as an energy storage medium for cars. The reason becomes obvious when the energy density is compared to other energy sources.  I have compiled a spreadsheet here which calculates the tank volume required for 1 hours use of compressed air at 300 MPa for any variable input power.  


For a typical car travelling at highway speeds using 20 kW of power it would require 0.8 m3 of compressed air at 300 Mpa for one 1 hours travel, assuming 50% efficiency of converting air pressure to mechanical drive. However, as stressed in the report Environmental Transport systems. Cars are typically of the order of 10 m3 in volume, so why should an extra 8% of volume be so restrictive? Even if space is a problem, can’t the length of the vehicle simply be lengthened?


There are also potential advantages of compressed air relative to batteries, as Warmair replied to me on a thread entitled Is the air car feasible?


“There are some advantages to the air powered vehicle, as compared to an electric,

particularly that an expensive (lithium) or potentially polluting (lead, Cadmium)

large battery pack is not required. I suspect that air vehicles may have a future.”


In addition, there are resource issues with these metals, especially if a considerable proportion of the worlds vehicle fleet used batteries for energy storage.


So let’s consider the fundamental thermodynamic and design considerations for compressed air powered cars.


Compressing air heats it and expanding it cools it. To retain this energy some means of heat storage medium might be required. ‘Trickle charging’ by slowly compressing the air under near constant temperature would minimise the energy storage losses. However, under practical conditions, rapid expansion occurs when work is extracted for propulsion purposes during driving.  In practice compressed air engines need heat exchangers in order to avoid excessively low temperatures and maintain pressures during the expansion process. To gain the maximum work from the expansion the process may have to be carried out in various stages with the air passing through high pressure cylinders or turbines before passing to low ones.


One possibility which occurs to me here is the use of a latent thermal store between the compressed air tank and engine. The heat generated during compression could then be stored then released to the air during expansion when the work in needed. This could also act as an additional energy store, in addition to the compressed air through the use of electrical heaters.


In theory an compressed air engine should be relatively efficient since  propulsion is obtained through direct pressure rather than indirectly through the combustion of fuel and air as in a conventional engine, which results in significant loss of heat energy. I envisage a situation where a compressed air car could additionally inject Biofuel into the compressed airstream as a range extender, thereby making the vehicle into a hybrid.  This might only be used for the few long journeys or emergencies when enough compressed air hasn’t been pumped into the tank for the full journey. The Tata air car uses a similar principle although this seems to require an external heat (or Stirling) engine using gasoline to achieve significant range or speed.  However,  I suspect this relies on petrol for all but the shortest and low speed journeys and the compressed air is being emphasised for public relations purposes.


No doubt there are significant technical challenges before compressed air can be used routinely as the main source of energy for powering vehicles; however, just like in the case of battery cars, their range could be further enhanced by a ferrying concept such as the ELECAT. Therefore, I don’t really see any fundamental problem which prevents compressed air being used as an energy store just like batteries. With regard to primary energy use and carbon emissions all same assumptions would apply to these as to batteries assuming the overall efficiency of the process was equivalent. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information available on this technology at present to make an informed judgement on this issue.

Environmental Transport Systems.Report.Spreadsheets.Articles.About.Feedback.FAQ.
Environmental Transport Systems.Report.Spreadsheets.Articles.About.Feedback.FAQ.


Environmental Transport Systems


Alternative Transportation Solutions through

Integrated Strategies and Technologies