MDI's AirPod One and its compressed air engine, at MDI's headquarters near Nice, France.

Lionel Cirroneau/AP Photo

How Compressed Air Can Fuel a Car

­The laws of physics dictate that uncont­ained gases will­ fill any given space. The easiest way to see this in action is to inflate a balloon. The elastic skin of the balloon holds the air tightly inside, but the moment you use a pin to create a hole in the balloon's surface, the air expands outward with so much energy that the balloon explodes. Compressing a gas into a small space is a way to store energy. When the gas expands again, that energy is released to do work. That's the basic principle behind what makes an air car go.­ ­

The first air cars will have air compressors built into them. After a brisk drive, you'll be able to take the car home, put it into the garage and plug in the compressor. The compressor will use air from around the car to refill the compressed air tank. Unfortunately, this is a rather slow method of refueling and will probably take up to two hours for a complete refill. If the idea of an air car catches on, air refueling stations will become available at ordinary gas stations, where the tank can be refilled much more rapidly with air that's already been compressed. Filling your tank at the pump will probably take about three minutes [source: Cornell].

The first air cars will almost certainly use the Compressed Air Engine (CAE) developed by the French company, Motor Development International (MDI). Air cars using this engine will have tanks that will probably hold about 3,200 cubic feet (90.6 kiloliters) of compressed air. The vehicle's accelerator operates a valve on its tank that allows air to be released into a pipe and then into the engine, where the pressure of the air's expansion will push against the pistons and turn the crankshaft. This will produce enough power for speeds of about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour. When the air car surpasses that speed, a motor will kick in to operate the in-car air compressor so it can compress more air on the fly and provide extra power to the engine. The air is also heated as it hits the engine, increasing its volume to allow the car to move faster [source: Cornell].