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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Running on Air

Air Date: Week of

A new car called the AirCar runs on just that – compressed air. Host Steve Curwood talks with the CEO of a small business that hopes to import the car from Europe to sell in the United States.


CURWOOD: And now, another way to save gasoline. Jean-Pierre Maeder, an engineer and CEO of ZEVCAT, a small California company, hopes to soon distribute a new European car that runs not on gas – but on compressed air. Mr. Maeder first heard about this car from his brother who's a Swiss auto mechanic. Now, while the car is still in the development stages, Mr. Maeder believes the MiniCat, as it's called, will one day be tooling up and down the hills of San Francisco and he's here to share his vision.

MAEDER: Welcome, thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, give me the basics here. How does a compressed air car, how does that work?

MAEDER: Well, it's a fascinating technology. The basic concept behind it is actually very simple physics and it works with the expansion of air and the energy that's released when you expand air. I don't know, your listeners, when you actually pump up a tire, and you touch the hose, you realize it's getting hot, so that's why you compress air in a tire…. that compression process creates heat. And the expansion process is, you might have seen when you blow air or hold your hand actually out the window, you feel it's cold, so that when air expands then it loses energy and that energy loss is actually harnessed in an engine and used for work.

CURWOOD: So, tell me about the engine that you would run with compressed air? Is it any different from an ordinary car engine?

MAEDER: The whole concept of a compressed air engine is very comparable with what's out today. But, of course, you know you have to have it a little more sealed than a gasoline engine because now you work with compressed air and higher pressures.

CURWOOD: Now, how much energy is really involved and how much does it cost to fuel it?

MAEDER: When you think about the energy, you kind of can go through a calculation really. How much, how long it would take you to fill your tank which is going to be between four and five hours if you hook it up to a 220 volt which most people have at home on their washer and dryer and it would take about 5.5 kilowatts per hour, so you're looking into something like a dollar fifty, two dollars for a tank fill.

CURWOOD: Now the only published road test that I've seen about your car has it going just four and a half miles on a full tank.

MAEDER: That's correct. That was done on the CitiCat without the right engine, the final engine was a prototype engine and it didn't have the correct tank, as well, which was a much heavier tank than it's going to be in the final version. So, weight was above specification, that's why it got much less range.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the prototypes for these cars? What do they look like?

MAEDER: The basic concept is you have a driver in the front and then you have space in the back where people can sit. It's very configurable so you can have a passenger seat and three people in the back or you can have one person in the front and four people in the back with a rotational driver's seat and then passenger's seat.

CURWOOD: So, you've been for a ride in the air car?

MAEDER: I have been for a ride in the air car and I was totally surprised by it. It's a thing that works.

CURWOOD: How soon do you think we will be seeing these rolling around?

MAEDER: Well, our hope is to see this car on the road as soon as possible which is maybe in a year, 18 months, and that is if funding goes through and we can actually get into finalizing the car, getting it tested, because there are some issues that need to be worked on and then get them into the step and market the car and get it onto the road.

CURWOOD: Jean-Pierre Maeder spoke to me from his office in San Francisco. Jean-Pierre, thanks for taking this time with me to talk today.

MAEDER: You're very welcome Steve. Thank you for having me on your show.




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