The History of Compressed Air Vehicles
It cannot be claimed that compressed air as an energy and locomotion vector is precisely recent technology. In fact at the end of the 19th century the first approximations to what could one day become a compressed air driven vehicle already existed, through the arrival of the first pneumatic locomotives. Yet even two centuries before that Dennis Papin apparently came up with the idea of using compressed air (Royal Society London, 1687).
The first recorded compressed-air vehicle in France was built by the Frenchmen Andraud and Tessie of Motay in 1838. A car ran on a test track at Chaillot on the 9th July 1840, and worked well, but the idea was not pursued further.
In 1872 the Mekarski air engine was used for street transit, consisting of a single-stage engine. It represented an extremely important advance in terms of pneumatic engines, due to its forward thinking use of thermodynamics, ensuring that the air was heated, by passing it through tanks of boiling water, also increasing its range between fill-ups. Numerous locomotives were manufactured and a number of regular lines were even opened up (the first in Nantes in 1879).
Mékarski system tram networks were also built in other towns in France: Vichy (1895), Aix-les-Bains (1896), La Rochelle (1899), and Saint-Quentin (1901).
The H. K. Porter Company in Pittsburgh sold hundreds of these locomotives to coal-mining companies in the eastern U.S. With the hopeful days of air powered street transit over, the compressed air locomotive became a standard fixture in coal mines around the world because it created no heat or spark and was therefore invaluable in gassy mines where explosions were always a danger with electric or gas engines.
Also in 1896, Porter supplied ten compressed air motor cars for the Eckington System in Washington, D.C. There was a tank on the front of the engine and it was recharged at the station.
Between 1890 and 1902 ten compressed air trams circulated in Bern, Switzerland.
In 1892, Robert Hardie introduced a new method of heating that at the same time served to increase the range of the engine.
However, the first urban transport locomotive was not introduced until 1898, by Hoadley and Knight, and was based on the principle that the longer the air is kept in the engine the more heat it absorbs and the greater its range. As a result they introduced a two stage engine.
Charles B. Hodges will always be remembered as the true father of the compressed air concept applied to cars, being the first person, not only to invent a car driven by a compressed air engine but also to have considerable commercial success with it.
Later on, in 1912 the American’s method was improved by Europeans, adding a further expansion stage to the engine (3 stages).
After years of working on a system for driving an automobile by means of compressed air Louis C. Kiser, a 77 year old from Decatur USA has succeeded in converting his gasoline engine into an air compressed system. Kiser removed the entire gasoline line, the cylinder head, water-cooling system, and self starter. A special cylinder head is substituted and a compressed-air tank added in place of the gasoline tank.
In 1926 Lee Barton Williams of Pittsburg USA presented his invention: an automobile which, he claims, runs on air. The motor starts on gasoline, but after it has reached a speed of ten miles an hour the gasoline supply is shut off and the air starts to work. At the first test his invention attained a speed of 62 miles an hour.
The first hybrid diesel and compressed air locomotive appeared in 1930, in Germany. The pressures brought to bear by the oil industry in the transport sector were ever greater and the truth of the matter is that they managed to block investigation in this field.
In January 1932 what appears to be the first journalistic article ever written about a car driven by compressed air was published.
In 1934, 21-year-old Johannes Wardenier announced he developed the world’s first fuel-less automobile. For weeks Dutch newspapers reported of an incredible invention that would change the world for ever. Not long after that he was mysteriously imprisoned in a mental institution, his design for the engine was stolen and he was kept under constant guard and never allowed to see anyone.
Later he was send off to a concentration camp where he remained until he was near death and his idea for a motor that ran on air was long forgotten.
According to his design the hot air was pressed into a motor which contained a number of cylinders, half of which go down when the others rise up. As in an ordinary engine, the crankshaft forced a rotating movement. The major difference was that the air after having passed through the cylinders, passed again through the cylinders by means of a compressor at the side, causing a continuous circulation and enough perpetual movement to last three months.
After the Second World War the term “air engine” was never again used in textbooks referring to compressed air or pneumatic locomotives and, whenever they were mentioned the article would go on to state that these engines were of little use or efficiency.
In the 1970’s Joseph P. Troyan designed an air-powered flywheel that could propel an automobile using the principle of "ratio amplification of motion in a closed system." The Troyan air mobile (U.S. Patent No. 040011) was easily attached to electrical generators to create a pollution-free, variable-power system.
¨My engine simply uses nature’s most powerful force: air pressure¨ Troyan commented.
In the 1970’s Willard Truitt presented his invention in McKees Rocks, USA. But because he did not have the financial means to develop his compressed air car further he gave the rights of his invention to NASA and the US Army in 1982.
After noticing steam pumps in Texas refineries Russel R. Brown started thinking about the idea of an air powered engine. Twenty years later, in 1974, his invention was finished. Brown claimed that his engine could not only run on air but could also be its own source of power. ¨We’re plagued with pollution, but my engine does no more damage to the air than if you inflate a tire and let it out again¨ Brown comments.
In January 1975 driving on compressed air was proposed by Sorgato in Italy as a viable fuel-economy alternative to the electric car for industrial and urban use. The first experimental model had nine air bottles charged to 2840 psi. by an external compressor. Top speed of this near-silent and non-polluting vehicle was said to be 30 miles per hour and had a duration of around two hours.
In 1976 Ray Starbard from Vacaville, California developed a truck that is able to drive on compressed air. He felt that he had invented the power system of the future, a system that would greatly change the automotive face of the world. ´It’s the car of the future, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind´ Starbard comments ´and all because of mother nature’s purest gift – Air¨.
In 1979, Terry Miller decided that compressed air was the perfect medium for storing energy. He developed Air Car One, which he built for $ 1,500. Terry’s engines showed that it was feasible to manufacture a car that could run on compressed air. He patented his method in 1983 (US4370857).
In the 1980’s Carl Leissler developed a motor that was able to function on air. The retired horticulturalist had been working from his garage in Hollywood for over 15 years. He says that to use his motor in a car you might have to use a small electric or gas energy source to help drive the air compressor. ‘We might be able to get 2000 miles per gallon, air is a power in itself’ Leissler comments.
Oblivious to curious stares Claud Mead drove his air compressed car through the streets.
The aim of this car was to spare the American motorists from gasoline woes. The big version of the car would be able to go 800 miles on a full tank.
Australian inventor Des Hill had been working on an air compressed motor for thirty years and had spend more than $ 20.000 on his project. with his air compressed motor). The air compressor which worked when the engine was running, would ensure that the cylinder was filled to capacity at all times. Thus Hill’s engine would realize the principle of perpetual motion.
George Miller said the air car he invented in 1984 would run forever. Miller envisioned his invention to be a solution to fuel and pollution problems, and the end to the middle east wars. The 58 year old retired coal miner and bricklayer from Johnstown, USA used a medium size, four cylinder engine out of a twelve year old Opel. Air from one of the tanks is fed into it through the spark plug holes, and air pressure moves the piston. The air is circulated out of the engine and back into the tank.
Jet aircraft starter motors using compressed air as a fuel provided unique power for this experimental dragster from Phoenix, US that had covered the quarter mile in the nine second range.
In May 1987 an article was published about Miami inventor Ricardo Perez-Pomar. The 61 year old pneumatic engineer, originally from Cuba claimed to have developed an engine that will continuously refill the very tank of compressed air that powers it.
‘This machine can be in full operation for months and months before its air tank must be artificially refilled.’ Perez promises.
Until 1987 the German company Arnold Jung Lokomotivenfabrik GmbH produced locomotives functioning on compressed air to be used in mines. In the 1980’s they were still selling and renovating locomotives.
Currently the tram association in Bern Switzerland (BTG) is developing a locomotive according to the original plans. It is expected to be ready in 2010.
At present (2008) various persons and companies are developing compressed air motors applicable to transportation, apart from the many companies that produce and commercialize compressed air motors for industrial purposes.