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The Air Car and a Hose to the Sky

By Robert Fritz


 For most of his career, Guy Negre studied engine efficiency. Among numerous designs were rotary motors, light aircraft engines and Formula 1 racing engines. By the early 1990's, Negre had designed nearly one hundred engines. And then he turned his creative mind to the development of a zero pollution engine. With a team of over 50 other engineers and technicians, he worked to improve the compressed air engine and the logistics and pragmatics of how it might work. 

By 1996 the team had created the first generation of compressed air engines. By 1998, their first cars were produced, and by a year later the "Green Taxi." By 2003 they presented the MiniCAT at the 'Mondial de l'auto'. By 2008 they had a true product, a car that used compressed air, had a very low carbon footprint (the compression of air needs some electricity), and a contract with one of India's largest automakers. The car will cost around $15,000, has a range of 200 miles on one tank of compressed air, and can hit speeds of around 65 miles per hour. The air car takes only a few minutes to refuel at gas stations equipped with custom air compressors, and costs around $2 to fill the tank with 340 liters of air at 4350 psi. Drivers will be able to plug the car in at home, and within 4 hours, refill the tank. 

One can imagine what a great thing this can be for the air around India. One can imagine if this, or other such innovative designs begin to create commercial viability, how the air around the planet will improve significantly. 

Another creative innovation has to do with how and where air cars are produced. Rather than large mega plants, Negre has a concept of local manufacturers in "turnkey" factories. His idea is to produce 80% of the cars near the locations they will be sold. This dramatically decreases costs and logistic problems of transport and inventory. It also decreases CO2 generated by transport of raw materials and finished cars. This concept uses only a third of the land surface necessary than the usual assembly plants, one fourth of resources, one fifth the investment, better repartition of production energy, and less pollution caused by the transport of finished vehicles. 

To see more about the Air Car:

On another front, there is the field of Geoengineering, which The National Academy of Sciences defined as "options that would involve large-scale engineering of our environment in order to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry." This is a vastly different approach to avoiding the dangers of global warming than the Copenhagen treaty would be able to accomplish. 

One of the more crazy sounding ideas from geoengineering is to pump large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. There, it would dim the sun's rays by 1%, which in turn would reduce the earth's average temperature by 1 degree, the same amount that the earth is gaining. 

Before this idea is dismissed out of hand, there are a few interesting facts that go with it. One comes from a lecture given by Benjamin Franklin in 1784 about the impact of the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland. The eruption was followed by one of the most severe winters on record during 1783-1784. Franklin concluded that the eruption dimmed the sun's rays, and, therefore brought on the colder temperatures. The volcano's sulfur dioxide did diminish the sun's rays, and did, indeed, lower the earth's average temperature. 

Geoengineers asked themselves if it were possible to use a similar principle to lower the earth's temperature. Their answer was yes. One of the ways that this could be done would be to raise a hose into the upper atmosphere by a series of helium balloons, and then pump sulfur dioxide there. As it turns out, this is not a monumental engineering feat, and it would not take a lot of sulfur dioxide to do the trick. The geoengineers propose that the two locations for pumping stations be at both poles, where it would be the easiest to set up and execute. 

How does dramatic change take place? On the one hand, human beings attempt to create agreements to do things more sensibly. However, much of their focus is on problem solving, which has its limitations as an approach. And the underlying structural dynamics when countries try to cooperate leads to a complex of structural conflicts in which short-term demands compete against long-term sustainability. So Copenhagen and Kyoto conferences are destined to have very limited impact. They are well intentioned. But because of the structural conflict between what's good for the planet (on the one hand) and what's good for the short-term effects of the economy and global infrastructure (on the other), not much can be expected and not much can be done. 

But perhaps that's okay. After all, the only thing that would motivate real change on that level is ecological disaster, and by then it is sure to be too late to do anything productive. 

Yet there is another force in play that is a product of the creative process at its best. And while there may be skeptics who are fast to ridicule the air cars and hoses into the atmosphere types of thinking, these innovators may hold the real key to a sustainable and viable future. 

We need the Kyoto and Copenhagen conferences. It is good to talk, to compare science, to hope for collective action that would lead to productive thought and action. But we should also notice the built in limitations to such approaches, and not put all of our eggs in that one basket. Real future development will come from millions of crazy sounding ideas, most of which will be useless, some of which will change the way we think, and a few of which will change the world forever. 


Robert Fritz 2010

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Updated: 10/24/10