Why aren't they filled with ambient air using air compressors? Isn't compressing ambient air cheaper than generating CO2? If it is, then those cartridges would have two benefits:

  • Cheaper to manufacture
  • CO2 filled tires deflate on their own far quicker than ambient air, so using air will mean, once you inflate your tire with a cartridge, you will not have to inflate it again when you are back home.
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    Getting the water out of normal air is a bitch and needs lots of of equipment. Check any dive shop.
    – Aganju
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 1:09
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    It is technically impractical (if not impossible) to compress a sufficient amount of regular air into a cartridge the size/weight of the CO2 cartridge. CO2 is much more compressible than regular air. Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 2:16
  • @Aganju - Getting water out of air is not really that big of a deal. The problem with water is that if the folks doing the tank filling don't take proper care they can fill a tank with water rather than air. Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 21:12
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    @DanielRHicks "CO2 is much more compressable than regular air" that explains it all. Your comment should have been an answer.
    – Tooniis
    Commented Sep 17, 2017 at 12:56
  • Pressurized air will leak. Co2 turns into a liquid in these canisters so it will not leak. Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 16:18

3 Answers 3


CO2 charger cartridges are used for bike tire inflation because they are a common, inexpensive product that has been around since the 1950s. Their other uses include powering air guns and inflating life vests.

They were originally developed by the Crosman Corporation and marketed under the name "Powerlet".

Powerlet cartridges are filled with CO2 presumably because it's the most suitable gas. Reasons I can think of are:

  • CO2 turns into a liquid at relatively low pressure compare to other gases - liquids are much denser than gasses so a useful amount of CO2 can fit in a small container.
  • Containers are easy and cheap to make to withstand the required pressure
  • CO2 is cheap and easy to make (although probably not very environmentally friendly).
  • CO2 is inert, will not react with the container material. It isn't flammable but heating a cartridge probably isn't a good idea.

Updates to my answer seeing as it popped back up on the main page for some reason.

CO2 cartridges are not filled with compressed CO2, they are filled with liquid CO2. That has to be done to get enough of the stuff in the cartridge to be useful. The cartridge is not completely filled however, and the gas pressure in the space is essentially constant (the vapor pressure) as long as there is some liquid CO2 remaining.

You can't put liquid air in a cartridge because it's comprised of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and CO2, all of which have different boiling points. In fact, C02 turns to a solid before nitrogen turns to a liquid.

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    1,2 and 4 are good reasons, but is making CO2 cheaper than powering air compressors to compress air into the cartridges?
    – Tooniis
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 12:13
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    Obviously using atmospheric air is unsuitable, as we don't see any 'canned' pressurized air products (think cans of compressed gas for removing dust from keyboards, which are actually filled with refrigerant) perhaps you should ask this question in the Physics Stack Exchange site. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 12:42
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    There is also the issue of the water vapor in compressed air freezing when the container is depressurized.
    – mikes
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 13:04
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    FWIW this says In almost all cases, carbon dioxide which is captured and purified for commercial applications would be vented to the atmosphere at the production point if it was not recovered for transport and beneficial use at other locations. (Regarding point #3 parenthetical.)
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 16:06
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    CO2 turning into a liquid at a relatively low pressure gives it a sort of self-regulating effect. The pressure of the gas on top of the liquid remains steady until the liquid is gone. This doesn't directly explain why they're used for tires, but it explains why they're used in airguns, which is what made them cheap and plentiful for other uses. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 20:55

I believe you will find these articles informative:

At room temperature (below the 31°C/87.8°F critical temperature) a CO2 bottle is to a practical extent self-regulating. This is not possible with simple compressed air. You would need a larger, stronger, heavier "high pressure air" bottle with a regulator (and its associated cost and complexity) to serve the same function.

This makes CO2 far more suited to a bicycle repair kit due to:

  • small size
  • low weight
  • low cost
  • reliability (simplicity)

This video of supercritical carbon dioxide provides an interesting window (both literal and figurative) into the phase behavior described in the articles above:

  • Does this mean that CO2 cartridges don't work properly above 31°C? That's not a very high temperature. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 14:51
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    @David It means that the pressure starts increasing substantially around that point. For tire inflation this shouldn't be a problem assuming the inflator itself is well designed, however there is a limit to the ambient temperature to which a cartridge may be safely exposed, which I believe is given as 120°F (quoted in the second article). It also shows a photo of a burst cartridge with the caption "Powerlet ruptured by exposure to 180° F temperature in manufacturer’s test" so I presume there is a healthy safety margin included in that 120°F specification.
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 15:01
  • @David Practically speaking cold temperatures are likely more of a problem as the cartridge will be very slow when cold. A simple solution would be to keep one next to your body.
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 15:04
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    Yeah, practically speaking, I'm gonna be more badly damaged by exposure to temperatures in excess 120°F than the cartridge is. :-D Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 15:06
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    @Swifty Into Tri is a UK organization and on a cloudy day like that, the temperature isn't going to be above 25C/75F, and these events are usually in the morning when it's at least a few degrees cooler. Assuming the video is recent, the temperature hit 33C/91F a couple of weekends ago, but that was a sunny day, so not when the video was taken. The UK has never come close to 120F: the record is 101F (38C). Long story short, no idea why that cartridge went off but it wasn't heat. (Actually, the plume of vapour suggests that it leaked, rather than exploding.) Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 8:48

This explains part of the reason in what may be too much detail:http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/genchem/topicreview/bp/ch4/deviation5.html If you're going to read any of it, read the material starting after the table listing "van der Waals Constants for the Various Gases". It calculates that compressing CO2 from 1 Liters to 0.2 Liters using the Ideal Gas Law (which will be nearly correct for air) "the pressure would have to be increased to 112 atm" but that for CO2 (at 0°C) "The van der Waals equation, however, predicts that the pressure will only have to increase to 52.6 atm". This is much less pressure for the same volume of gas (at normal atmospheric pressure). Think about the safety aspects: the container for this won't need to be nearly as strong (as expensive) as one for the same std. volume of air. Economically and safety wise, it's a no-brainer.

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