compressed air compressor Tel: 01480 217904
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Unit 2 Steel Close
St Neots, PE19 8TT

History of compressed air

The first air compressors were bellows used for metallurgy as far back as 2000 B.C. These low pressure devices were powered by hand, foot and later by a water wheel. Their use was mainly to fan fires hot enough to smelt and forge metal ores.

Bellows are still used today, often hung around English fireplaces. They are used in music to provide compressed air to instruments such as the accordion.

Double acting piston bellows were commonly used by the Han rulers in ancient China during the third century B.C.

During the 18th century inventors experimented with boiling water, creating large quantities of gas causing solid containers to explode. James Watts is widely acknowledged for developing steam power into a useable energy source.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that compressed air was seen as a method of transporting energy.

Between 1801-1862 the number of Cornish mines grew four fold. This explosion in commerce led the way to the Holman Brothers developing their compressed air rock drills. The Holmans Foundary based in Camborne was internationally acclaimed for its production of quality compressed air tools.

At this time steam powered compressors were used in many different applications from early diving experiments to locomotives which had air breaks not too dissimilar to what we see on lorries today.

Between 1857 and 1870 a rock drill was used to connect France and Italy with an 8-mile tunnel under Mount Cenis. In the rock drill compressed air was conveyed to a small cylinder which works a piston. A jumper is connected to the piston via a rod. Air being forced behind the piston impels the jumper against the rock and then brought back by opening a valve which lets air through to the front of the piston. This piece of equipment was pounding the rock up to five times per second.

In the late 19th century some cities such as Paris, Birmingham and Buenos Aires had a compressed air grid system in place. The initial purpose was to power clocks by providing a pulse of air every minute, this soon gave way to delivering power to homes and industry.

By 1896 Paris had a 30 mile wide 80 psi compressed air system powered by over 3000hp of compressed air equipment. It is well documented that a lot of people suspected compressed air would take over from electricity as a cleaner energy source.

In the early 20th century compressed air was mixed with gasoline to power rockets.

Piston compressors were used to power many industrial applications. Powered by electric motors these were designed as steam engine in reverse. Piston pumps were first used by the Romans for transporting water as far back as 250 B.C.

The 1930’s brought about the era of the screw compressor. The technology was first patented by Heinrich Krigar from Germany in 1878. This offered a more reliable, quieter and more efficient source of compressed air.

In 1973 CAES installed an energy storage plant in Germany. The plant used existing underground caves to store air produced by surplus energy generated by power plants.

Similar plants followed soon after in Ohio and Alabama in the USA.

Compressed air usage carried on growing during the 20th century with compressed air being used in jet engines, car bodyshops, dentistry and a whole range of other applications.

A major breakthrough late in the 20th century was variable speed drive compressors which allowed for industrial applications to reduce the energy consumption required to create compressed air.

As we look forward experiments are currently underway looking at compressed air powered automobiles. The concept of a pneumatic powered vehicle was born back in the late 18th century but until now it has failed to gain widespread usage.

The future may bring about an era of decentralised solar powered energy consumption and it is possible if not probable that compressed air will play a part in the transportation and storage of this energy source.
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