|When it comes to alternative fuels, Dr. Cliff Ricketts considers himself a modern-day Davy Crockett – “a frontiersman with energy” who has “blazed a trail with ethanol, blazed a trail with hydrogen and blazed a trail with sun and water,” he said.
On Monday, Nov. 1, Ricketts, a 34-year agriscience professor at Middle Tennessee State University, blazed a unique, 500-plus mile trail across Tennessee.
Ricketts drove a specially adapted 1994 Toyota Tercel from Bristol, Va., to West Memphis, Ark. The fuel for the journey: the sun and hydrogen from water.
“My whole passion is sun and water,” said Ricketts, who has had a career of alternative-fuel high-water marks. “I believe accomplishing this feat will have the following implications: A cleaner environment because of clean tailpipe emissions from the vehicle, energy self-sufficiency and renewability, less dependency on foreign oil and less of a trade imbalance because of the purchase of foreign oil, etc.”
Ricketts firmly believes he could make the one-day drive from near Blacksburg, Va., to Little Rock, Ark., about one-fourth the distance across the U.S., with only one refueling stopover at MTSU in Murfreesboro.
Traveling mostly by interstate (I-81, I-40 and I-24), the Tercel, called “a third backup” by Ricketts because a 2008 Toyota Prius is in Reno, Nev., being adapted to run on hydrogen and a 1995 Chevrolet Vlazer (a cross between a Volt and a Blazer) is sidelined by low batteries (it takes 26 altogether to run), will travel at approximately 58 mph.
Ricketts said the Tercel is nicknamed “Forces of Nature.”
“In what may be one of the most historic events since the flight of the Wright Brothers in 1903, we will drive the car across the state more than 500 miles on two forces of nature, the sun and water,” he said. “With this system, every commuter could drive on sun and hydrogen from water as the energy sources.”
Joining Ricketts, who holds bachelor’s (’70) and master’s (’73) degrees from the University of Tennessee and a doctorate (’82) from Ohio State University, on this mission is Jo Borck, a Canada native and hydrogen expert. Borck attended MIT and graduated from Washington State University with a mechanical-engineering degree.
“He is one of the top five hydrogen people in the world,” Ricketts said of Borck, whose knowledge of the hydrogen compression system and the computer timing mechanism have proven invaluable in the five years they have worked together and with Ricketts’ students.
How does the engine run off sun and water? Ricketts said the MTSU solar unit provides DC electricity, which is converted into AC electric, and it goes into the grid line. “In essence, the MTSU system is doing the same thing as a hydro dam or coal-powered unit,” he said.
“In order to produce hydrogen, tap water is de-ionized and then sent to a solid polymer electrolysis unit,” he added. “When the electrolysis unit is running, it uses the stored solar produced by electricity. … This system is a result of using TVA’s Green Power Switch Generation Partners Program. Next, the hydrogen comes out at 200 psi’s and goes into two, 500-gallon storage tanks and then compressed to 6,000 psi’s. The vehicle is then filled with hydrogen. It has two, 4.2 kilogram tanks (5,000 psi’s per tank). The vehicle is adapted and equipped to get a 370-mile range."
Ricketts’ ultimate applied science research goal: To drive from coast to coast, hopefully in 2011, using only 10 gallons of gasoline.
Ricketts and his wife, Nancy, live in Mt. Juliet. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Brentwood, Tenn.-based Tractor Supply Co. is Ricketts’ primary off-campus sponsor. Other key sponsors include the MTSU Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.