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Compressed air is made of the same air you breathe in and out, but that air is compressed into a smaller size and kept under pressure. When you take atmospheric air and then physically force it into a smaller volume, the molecules take up less space; the air is compressed.

Atmospheric air and compressed air are both made up of:

  • 78% Nitrogen
  • 20-21% Oxygen
  • 1-2% water vapor, carbon dioxide & other gases

The “ingredients” in the air don’t change when it’s compressed—just the amount of space those molecules take up.

Air is compressed in two simple steps:

Step 1: Air is trapped in a cylinder, tank, or similar container
Step 2: The space in that tank becomes smaller, which forces the air molecules closer together

The now-compressed air remains trapped in this smaller state, waiting to expand again until it’s ready for use.

The act of compressing air is easiest to picture with a reciprocating air compressor, where a piston pushes the air down in a cylinder. Here’s a great reference image:


(Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

But pistons aren’t the only way to force air into a smaller space. There are numerous styles of air compressors on the market, each with its advantages and disadvantages. For example, rotary screw air compressors use dual spinning screws to push air down and compress it:

air end for compressed air

Rotary screw air compressors are chosen over reciprocating because they are compact, powerful, and can run continuously. You can read more about the differences between rotary screw and reciprocating air compressors here, if you’re interested.

Regardless of the mechanism used, air is always compressed by taking atmospheric air and squishing it down, so the molecules are condensed and pressurized.

You know when you’re crammed in a busy elevator, the door suddenly opens, and everybody rushes out and spreads apart? Compressed air does the same thing. While the molecules in air can be trapped in a smaller space, they don’t want to be, and they will spread apart as quickly as possible the first second they can. That’s what causes pressure.

Atmospheric air has 14 PSI of pressure (1 bar) but can be forced up to 6004 PSI (414 bar) of pressure when compressed into a smaller state. Exactly how pressurized compressed air becomes is determined by science.

Air pressure is explained by three scientific laws:

  • Boyle’s Law explains that if air volume halves during compression, the pressure is doubled.
  • Charles’ Law states that the volume of air changes in direct proportion to the temperature.
  • The First Law of Thermodynamics tells us that an increase in pressure equals a rise in heat and that compressing air creates a proportional increase in heat.

Collectively, these three laws explain that pressure, volume, and temperature are proportional. If you change one variable, then one or two of the others will also change, according to this equation:


When applying this formula to an air compressor, the air volume and air pressure can be controlled and increased as needed. You can use compressed air in pressure ranges from 14 PSI to 6004 PSI (1 to 414 bar) at flow rates from as little as 3.5 CFM (0.1m3) and up.

Fortunately, most people have no reason to memorize or use this formula. Instead, just set your air compressor to your desired pressure and let science take care of the rest.

Compressed air is hot because the air molecules are physically forced closer together during compression, which causes the molecules to move quickly; this rapid molecule movement generates heat.

Depending on the application, the compressed air that leaves an air compressor system can be hundreds or even thousands of degrees.

However, the compressed air that leaves an air compressor is typically not as hot as the air inside the compression chamber. Hot air can be dangerous, and heat also increases the amount of water in the air stream, which can be a problem in some applications. When necessary, air compressor designs can include aftercoolers to reduce the temperature of the compressed air.

Compressed air is used in one of two ways:

  • As an energy source
  • As blowing air (“active air”)

When used as an energy source, compressed air can power air tools and production equipment. Tools and equipment powered by compressed air are found in countless applications across dozens of industries, including construction, tire service, mechanical repair, maintenance, factory production, industrial processes, and vehicle safety systems. Even roller coasters use compressed air!

Active air is used when a steady stream of air is needed for a task. A couple of literal applications for active air are aeration and medical breathing air. But tons of other industries, from pharmaceutical and chemical companies to food and beverage plants, use active air in their processes to produce goods and services.

Compressed air is a popular energy source for many reasons. The main benefits of using air compressors and compressed air are:

  • Improved productivity
  • Cheap power source
  • Safe & easy to use
  • Energy efficient
  • Low operating costs
  • Versatile tools & applications
  • Compact, light & easy to move
  • Lower theft rates

Compressed air has been described as the fourth utility. Although not as ubiquitous as electricity, petroleum products, or gas, air that’s compressed plays a fundamental part in powering our modern world. It plays a vital role in most modern manufacturing processes in today’s civilization.

Although you may not realize it, most products we use today were made using compressed air at some point in the process. In fact, compressed air accounts for about 10% of the global energy currently used.

The main difference between compressed air and other power sources is that users can easily generate their own air and choose how to generate it. As a result, air compressors can accommodate a lot of different needs. Many applications in different environments are dependent on pneumatic air, and air compressors can be configured (with the right accessories) to compress air to a specific pressure, at a certain flow, and of the right quality.

Yes. Compressed air is clean, safe, simple, and efficient, as far as energy sources go. There are no dangerous exhaust fumes or other harmful by-products when compressed air is used, and it is a non-combustible, non-polluting utility.

However, compressed air can be dangerous when misused or if air receiver tanks aren’t properly maintained. Therefore, operators should always follow the guidelines set by manufacturers.

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It is possible for an air receiver tank holding compressed air to explode—but it’s extremely rare and tends to occur when operators don’t look after their air receiver tank.

The leading cause of air compressor tank explosions is corrosion. When operators don’t drain the water that accumulates in their tank, it can cause corrosion, weakening the tank until the compressed air breaks it open.

The second common cause of an air tank explosion is poorly manufactured products or manufacturing defects. For example, an air receiver tank without a proper pressure relief valve might become over-pressurized and explode from that. Working with a reputable air receiver tank manufacturer should prevent these types of explosions from occurring.

Explosions & Canned Air

Keep in mind that canned air, those small cans of compressed air used to clean electronics and computer equipment, is not the same thing as true compressed air. Canned air is a highly flammable chemical mixture, which has a higher chance of causing an explosion.

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