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Makita electric air compressor

A Compressed Air Based Economy

The benefits of using compressed air instead of electricity to run society

Low-tech magazine has an interesting article about the early 1900s when compressed air had much the same position as electricity today.

The most important tidbits I was left from when reading this was:

  1. Paris had an extensive network of compressed air tubes all over the city, which restaurants and industry plugged into. Pneumatic power tools were used rather than electric. Restaurants used compressed air for cooling beverages and food.
  2. Back in the 1900s compressed air based systems were more energy efficient than today, because they did not take the detour of generating electricity as we do today.

What got me initially interested in compressed air energy storage was the article in low-tech magazine explaining how equal energy density to electric batteries could be achieved by utilizing high pressure tanks locally where heat generated from compression was used for heating the house, cooking, shover etc, while cooling caused by decompression was used for refrigeration.

This is interesting for people of a wide variety of interests:

  • Environmentalists. Compressed air systems require a lot less energy to construct and last much longer than batteries.
  • Hippies for lack of a better word. Basically people who want to live independent from modern society. E.g. the kind of people who build earth ships. Compressed air allows you
  • Space Geeks. Initial space colonies will be small and will be far away from a sophisticated and complex industrial base on earth. One needs simple easy to build and repair solutions. Compressed air systems requires much simpler technology and resources than batteries and electrical systems.

I thought it would be interesting to go through all the different parts of everyday life and manufacturing which could run on compressed air.

An interesting source of information on this is the Amish people, due to their practice of avoiding the usage of electricity. The Amish thus use compressed air for what most other people would use electricity.

You get drills, lathes, sanders, saws etc running on compressed air. The Amish workshops, where they build e.g. furniture will run entirely on compressed air.

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Compressed air powered sander

Example of a compressed air powered router.

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Compressed air powered router

Compressed air chop saw.

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Compressed air powered chop saw

You can actually already find a number of home appliances utilizing compressed air. I had not assumed there was a market for this, but due to the Amish there is actually a store called cottage craftworks, selling home appliances running on compressed air.

There are a number of products. E.g. here is an air powered blender-mixer.

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Air powered blender-mixer

They even sell a conversion kit for turning an old Wringer wash machine into being air powered.

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While not normal for home usage, there are compressed air based vacuum cleaners sold for industrial usage. Here is one sold as Ali Express.

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Air powered vacuum cleaner

You could use an electric compressor to generate compressed air, but the whole point of exploring this space is of course to avoid the efficiency loss caused by taking a detour through electricity. We want to compress air as directly as possible.

On earth windmills is a good solution. Wind Compressor LLC is a company that sells windmills which compress air directly without generating electricity first. This is their WC 5 HP windmill air compressor.

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Windmill based air compressor

It can generate up to 5 horse power. If you have access to a waterfall you can use water to compress air using an old device called a Trompe, with no movable parts.

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Final Thoughts

When society goes down one path, it tends to get locked in. Our society is extremely oriented around the usage of electricity for everything, so an alternative compressed air based life is probably not likely.

However I think it is useful to explore other ideas about how to run society. Sometimes it is simply fun to imagine alternative worlds.

In a compressed air powered world, our houses would perhaps have outlets for compressed air dotted around the house much like we have electric sockets today. You would just connect your food processor, washing machine or vacuum cleaner directly to these sockets with some rubber tube.

There are various advantages and disadvantage to such a setup. On the positive side, you would not risk getting electrocuted. Equipment would be a lot more durable. Air powered devices last a lot longer. There is not electric motor to burn out. On the other hand air powered tools tend to cost more. There would be a higher upfront cost but lower cost over time.

Leaking air, would be a problem which does not exist with electricity. It is not dangerous but it means you lose power unnecessarily.

Houses would be a lot safer from fire. A lot of fires starts from problems with the electric equipment.

To be fair I doubt one can or would want to live entirely without electricity. However most houses could get away with low voltage DC electricity to drive LED lamps. Low voltage DC is less likely to cause a fire.

However stoves and microwave ovens cannot run on compressed air and will likely require quite a lot of power. The alternative would be to have gas powered stoves, but that zeros out the safety benefits I assume.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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