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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The 2010 MDI AIRPod

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It's not every day that we get to drive a car that could change the world. Then again, maybe this car is just another bizarre footnote in the rush to develop zero-emissions vehicles.

The 2010 MDI AIRPod emits no emissions and runs on nothing but compressed air. Yes, it sounds like another one of those crackpot inventions, but we traveled to Nice, France, for an exclusive test of the world's only "air car." And here at the research and development center of Luxembourg-based Motor Development International (MDI), the AIRPod seems like more than just a bright idea.

If the air car and the technology beneath its bubblelike body prove a success, pumping fossil fuel into a gas tank could someday seem as antiquated as hand-cranking a car's engine to life.

The AIRPod

The heart of the 2010 MDI AIRPod is a piston engine that has been specially adapted by MDI to run on compressed air. The expansion of the compressed air within the cylinders moves the pistons. The engine is "fueled" by a system of high-pressure air tanks. Built by EADS, an aerospace firm, the tanks are constructed of lightweight carbon-fiber. Though the tanks are presently limited to a capacity of 80 liters (21.1 gallons) at 200 bars of pressure (2,900 psi), MDI plans an increase to 200 liters (53 gallons) and 300 bars of pressure (4,400 psi, which is actually substantially less than the 10,000-psi rating of hydrogen tanks used in fuel-cell vehicles) for the first production models of the AIRPod, set to be built by the end of this year.

As a prototype, the AIRPod we've come to drive is limited to a top speed of only 50 km/h (30 mph). The top speed of future models will be 80 km/h (50 mph).

With one person onboard and the car running solely on air power, MDI estimates the AIRPod's range at between 90 and 125 miles. When the tanks are empty, a recharge of air can take as little as two minutes (MDI conveniently has an industrial-strength air refueling station at its facility). The company says the infrastructure needed to build air refueling stations will cost only a fraction of that needed to establish a network of hydrogen refueling stations, the holy grail of the eco-car world. MDI claims running costs amount to only €1 per 200 km (a penny per mile).

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