Tata on compressed air!?

The big splash about Tata Motor’s ultra-cheap Nano ($2,500) all but buried another announcement from the Indian automaker at the Delhi auto show: they signed a $20M deal with MDI, a European start-up car maker working on commercializing cars that run on compressed air.

Of course, the cars don’t “run on air,” rather they use compressed air as an energy store, like batteries. Even the MDI website states that incorrectly, when they say that the the motor uses air as fuel. That, of course is complete nonsense. The source of the energy is either the power grid (via a stationary compressor), or a motor in the car (electric or combustion). They will also be able to recover energy from the moving vehicle during deceleration, much like some electric cars do.

So the potential for a positive environmental impact of this technology will be determined by

  • its overall energy efficiency
  • the ultimate source of the energy used
  • the usefulness of the vehicle

They have been working on this for 14 years, and it’s not clear from the website how close they are to shipping the first models. But the investment from India should give them a big boost. Although I am skeptical that making cars and engines more complicated will make them more efficient, I certainly hope this works. This is very cool technology, and at the very least, it might help solve some specific problems, like cleaning up the air in big cities.

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