Mumbai: Tata Motors Ltd, India’s largest automobile company, has completed the first phase of a plan to start commercial production of a car that runs on compressed air. It has been working on the project for five years, but the cars may take a while to reach showrooms given the long gestation period between pilot runs and commercialization.
Tata Motors is the sole licensee of Luxembourg-based Motor Development International’s compressed air engine in India, having signed an agreement for technology transfer in 2007. In December 2009, Tata Motors vice-president S. Ravishankar was cited in DNA Money as saying that the project was facing difficulties in terms of range and cooling.
Tata Motors implemented the concept in two vehicles in May, according to a company spokesperson. “In the second phase, we are working together to complete detailed development of the technology and required technical processes to industrialize a market-ready product application,” he said, declining to give any timeframe.
Compressed air is used to power pneumatic drills and air brakes, among other devices. As a concept, an air-powered car sounds like the answer to environmental degradation and energy shortages, to name just two critical problems the earth faces.
Innovation pressure: An AirPod concept model produced by the Motor Development International (MDI). The model runs on compressed air. Tata Motors is the sole licensee of MDI’s compressed air engine in India
Air cars are also designed to be lighter than conventional cars. The aluminium construction of these vehicles will keep their weight under 2,000 pounds (907 kg), making them fuel efficient.
“The novelty lies in the carefully controlled expansion of the compressed air using a multi-piston engine design,” the spokesperson said. “Thus, the technology deployed to implement this concept is unique in its detailed configuration. The air-handling system utilises similar components to that used in compressed natural gas or CNG vehicles.”
Tata Motors is “working on several opportunities to improve the efficiency of the engine and also establish reliability and life estimation as a part of detailed development process”, he added.
“Compressed air has been used in the industrial sector for ages, so the concept is not earth shattering. However using compressed air technology for vehicles is something extraordinary as it could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as it would require nothing more than suction of air,” said V.G.Ramakrishnan, vice-president, automotive and transportation practice at Frost and Sullivan. The challenge, he added, will be in commercializing it as well as the impact it could have on the global oil economy and the disruption it can cause in many hydrocarbon-producing countries.
MDI’s production models include the AirPod, OneFlowAIR, MiniFlowAIR and CityFlowAIR. Prototypes are said to have been tested by some foreign airlines for use as emission-free vehicles within airports. However, no AirPod has been sold till date.
The AirPod, according to the company’s website, can be driven with a joystick and only costs €1 (Rs 70) per 200 km. It is part of the MDI production licence of “less than 500kg vehicles, and has four seats (three adults and one child) with space for luggage”. The OneFlowAIR, according to the company, is expected to range between €3,500 and €5,300.
While Tata Motors did not comment on the speeds, the engine is said to produce enough power for speeds of about 56 km per hour. Compressed air engines also offer the option of using fossil fuels or biofuels to heat the air as it enters the engine. However, while the speeds may increase, pollution too will rise proportionately. The idea of using compressed air to power a vehicle has been around for a while. Early prototypes date back to the 1920s, before the internal combustion engine was invented.
Smaller companies such as Air Car Factories SA based in Spain are also developing such vehicles. “At this moment, the design of our first models are completed,” the company said on its website. “These models are designed to offer enough space for the tanks with compressed air and its motor, or, an electric motor and its batteries. Our intention is to launch our first electric model within a short time period, while waiting for the completion of our future air car.”
Australia-based Engineair Pty Ltd is another such company focusing on the development of air motor technology, based on a unique rotary piston concept. In 2010, Honda presented the Honda Air concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The Tata Motors spokesman declined to give any investment figures. The company’s standalone research and development (R&D) expenditure has risen 30% from Rs 1,193 crore in 2008 to Rs 1,548.69 crore in 2012. Its UK-based Jaguar Land Rover division’s R&D spending has more than doubled from Rs 3,881 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 8,032 crore in 2011-12, according to the latest annual report.
The Tata group spent at least $2.7 billion on R&D in 2010-11. The latest figures are not available.
The Tata group’s innovations include the Nano, launched in 2008 as the world’s cheapest car; Titan Edge, said to be the world’s thinnest, water-resistant watch; and affordable water purifier Tata Swach (developed by Tata Chemicals Ltd, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. and Titan Industries Ltd).
The Tata group has also invested heavily in Sun Catalytix—an energy storage and renewable fuels company founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Daniel Nocera. The aim is to introduce a low-cost device to harness solar power, primarily for homes in developing countries such as India.
Sun Catalytix’s prototype can extract hydrogen from water sourced from anywhere— rivers, sea, even human waste. Once the water is split into hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen is used to power fuel cells. Costing around $20 (around Rs 1,115), the device is expected to be available in a few months.
The Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M) group is also working on hybrid technologies besides working on new models of its Reva electric car.
A new Rs 100 crore electric vehicle plant was inaugurated by M&M’s chairman on 22 August to produce up to 30,000 cars every year.
The new car is expected to be launched in the next few months and will be the first car developed by Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles Pvt. Ltd. M&M acquired a 55.2% stake in Reva Electric in 2010.