How compressed air is being used in FutureTech

4 min read
compressed-air-dragster
A solely compressed-air-powered dragster from the 1960’s built by Garrett (that turned into Allied then AlliedSignal and finally Honeywell). The machine was capable of reaching 160 MPH speeds.

Compressed air is not necessarily a factor many people think of as a component in tech, but it’s more important than they imagine, either for improving existing technologies or engineering new ones.

Here are five ways compressed air is revolutionizing technology and solving problems.

1. More sustainable energy options

Due to the increasing effects of climate change and substantial dependence on fossil fuels, people are always looking for sustainable energy usage options. Compressed air could be another, since an EU project wants to store compressed air in tunnels.

Traditional methods of storing compressed air result in energy loss because the air experiences heat exchange with the external environment. However, supporters of storing compressed air in tunnels say this method could result in virtually no energy loss.

In some areas of the world, another approach to stored energy involves hydropower reservoirs that act like batteries. During times of limited available electricity, the stored water generates power, then gets pumped back uphill during times of surplus renewable energy.

However, the tunnel approach could be a more efficient and a practical way to meet energy needs. Hydropower systems are most useful in mountainous regions because the water gets pumped uphill or flows downhill depending on usage. This possibility of using compressed air could open up the opportunities for use in flat areas.

This trial is still in its early stages and limited in its scope. Even if tests show this technique is worthwhile, energy storage methods are exceptionally expensive. Making them cost-effective will require getting policymakers on board with the new tech and changing existing policies to support this option.

2. Hybrid car engines

Hybrid cars commonly run on a combination of gas and electricity, with drivers switching between modes as desired. The Hybrid Air engine is another option that uses compressed air and gas for fuel. In that concept, compressed air replaces the need for electricity, which could potentially result in a car that’s more eco-friendly than other options.

A press release by the PSA Group about the engine says the compressed air mode works for about 80 percent of city journeys, while the gas-powered setting results in a 5 percent reduction in fuel consumption. Also, people do not have to choose which mode to use for the most efficient results because the engine switches autonomously.

Hybrid car with compressed air
Image credit: PSA Group

The team behind this engine believes its technology takes a significant step toward engineering a car that requires 2 liters or less of gas per every 100 kilometers. However, nearly a decade ago, other efforts at air-powered cars emerged, including plans for them to be marketed in India. Those ultimately fell flat, though.

Fuel efficiency is problematic with air-powered engines, along with the fact that a large amount of compressed air must be stored on board. Bulky tanks don’t suit the sleek and small cars many drivers prefer.

If the Hybrid Air engine succeeds, it must first overcome obstacles previously identified during earlier attempts. It remains to be seen if investors will sufficiently back this new technology when other hybrid technologies are already widely used and embraced.

3. Contaminant-free energy for medical and food industries

The growing use of air compressors in industries like the pharmaceutical sector and the food and beverage industry means there is an increased demand for oil-free compressors.

They keep the oil and air components separate, allowing for contaminant-free air output. Without that technology, sectors can face fines for unclean air and spend prohibitively high amounts trying to keep it purified.

Market reports predict a total market worth for the oil-free compressor industry surpassing $14 billion by 2024, up from $11 billion in 2017. The opportunity for growth in the oil-free compressor market is especially high in the food and medical industries.

Contaminants entering the manufacturing process could lead to the loss of product quality and integrity. Oil-free compressed air eliminates pollutants from oil lubricant condensate.

These air compressors are also well-suited to help companies adapt to growth. For example, E’stel Water, a provider of premium alkaline water, has grown in the past few years and needed to accommodate the demand for its product, which comes in unusually shaped bottles. The company uses a compressed air blow-molding system that shapes up to 11,000 bottles per hour.

There are some potential shortcomings of this technology that could hinder growth, though. For example, the main source of lubrication in these machines is typically air, and the friction that results with prolonged use results in wear and tear that could cause machine breakdowns. Oil-free air compressors are also noisier than their oil-based counterparts.

Jairam Varadaraj is the managing director of ELGI Equipments, an Indian company focusing on compressed air in health care. Varadaraj understands one of the challenges of oil-free air is that the equipment to run it is more expensive than oil-lubricated air. His company’s goal is to build high-quality oil-free compressors for health care and other sectors while keeping costs down.

4. Air-powered wheelchairs

Many electric wheelchair users are limited in where they can go because of fragile parts that are sensitive to moisture. For example, they must be careful in rainy weather.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh created an air-powered wheelchair that’s lightweight and entirely waterproof because it has no electronic parts.

It’s called the PneuChair and can be recharged in only 10 minutes using an air compressor. Most electric chairs plug into a wall outlet and could take eight hours or more to charge.

Also, it has a simple design made with components available from most hardware stores. So, maintenance should be comparatively more straightforward than with other chairs, and less expensive.

However, a possible downside is that the PneuChair only weighs 80 pounds. That build could make it unsuitable for use on hilly terrain or with heavier or taller users.

5. Pneumatic robotic hands

A successful Kickstarter campaign plans to bring a pneumatically powered robotic hand to the market. It’s made from soft material and inspired by biological organisms. The manufacturers hope their new kind of prosthetic hand will lead to safer interactions between humans and robots and say the hand can perform the same tasks humans do.

A problem with conventional robotic hands is that they are rarely multipurpose. Instead, users must purchase different grippers for various tasks and switch them out. Also, they cannot react quickly to changes in their environments because the programming needed to run them requires using them in inflexible ways.

A company called ADEVO Technologies believes it can make a more practical robotic hand through compressed air. It’s pumped air into various segments, such as the knuckle, to make the hand move. For now, its achievement is just a proof of concept.

The developers admitted that challenges cropped up as the project has progressed. It could be a while before these hands are in widespread use, and they may turn out to be unfeasible.

Compressed air offers numerous possibilities

This list shows the diversity of compressed air and how it can assist technologies used in various fields.

As people experiment with even more ways to use it, the options for advancement will grow.

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