Terry Young (left) and Cliff Ricketts check under the hood of their 1994 Toyota Tercel, nicknamed Forces of Nature because the car runs on sun and water, at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Masters)
If Middle Tennessee State University agriscience teacher Cliff Ricketts’ vision comes to fruition, Americans need never worry about running out of fuel.
They can forget about high gasoline prices as well as air-polluting auto emissions.
Ricketts imagines a day when cars will operate efficiently and cleanly via solar and hydrogen power.
The Mount Juliet native made one of his dreams come true March 2012 when he and a hand-picked crew drove from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific in a relay of three vehicles using hydrogen-fueled water, solar energy and 43 gallons of ethanol 95.
Come Saturday morning, Ricketts and his seven like-minded, energy-efficient road warriors intend to repeat the 2,500-plus-mile cruise, but this time without burning a drop of gasoline.
“This year our goal is to go coast to coast on nothing but hydrogen from water powered by the sun. We take all our hydrogen with us,” said Ricketts, referring to the seven 10-feet-long, 18-inch-diameter hydrogen tanks necessary to make the five-day transcontinental drive.
“It’s taken 30 years to figure this thing out,” he said. “We got a system here in place to demonstrate how every commuter in the country can drive fueled by sun and water.”
The college professor, 64, was inspired to begin his quest in 1979 after 52 Americans were taken hostage during the Iranian Revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“That started slowing down Persian Gulf oil shipments, where then 80 to 90 percent of the world’s oil supply was coming out of there," said Ricketts, a beef cattleman who grew up on a dairy farm between Mt. Juliet and Gladeville. "Gas prices exploded.
“The reason I got interested was because I was afraid American farmers would not get enough fuel to harvest their crops. So, I wanted to come up with an alternative fuel, so American farmers could be energy self-sufficient during times of a national crisis."
The professor attended MTSU for three years before completing his agriculture education degree at the University of Tennessee in 1970 and earned his doctorate from Ohio State in 1982. He is in his 37th year at MTSU where he teaches such courses as agriculture-teacher education, agriculture mechanics, tractor overhaul, alternative fuels and greenhouse management.
It’s in the ag-education shop, actually a big garage, on the MTSU campus where Ricketts and his associates work their engineering magic. Over the years, they have assembled nine vehicles that run off of alternative fuels.
“We started out here to run an engine off ethanol," he said. "We figured it out. I’ve expanded my goal now to make America energy independent so at least commuters can drive off of hydrogen from water and the sun."
For this year’s crew, Ricketts has selected what he terms “an all-star team,” most of whom are MTSU alumni.
The members include Woodbury resident Terry Young; Ben Hill, of Murfreesboro; Nathan Fuller, of Westmoreland; John Oden, of Nashville; and current students Harris Alexander, of Nashville, and Sean Burk, of Crossville; as well as engineer Mike Sims, of Jackson, Mich.
Sponsors of the expedition include Tractor Supply Company and Farmer Credit Services, while the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation provided a grant.
In preparation for this year’s ultimate challenge, Ricketts drove a 1994 Toyota Tercel fueled by hydrogen from water across Tennessee from Bristol, Va., to West Memphis, Ark., on Nov. 1, 2010.
Last March’s cruise from New Tybee Beach, Ga., to Long Beach, Calif., used the same Tercel, a 2005 Toyota Prius and a 2007 Prius that ran on ethanol. Ricketts calls it a “dry run” for this year.
The vehicles averaged a speed of 60 miles per hour as they traveled interstates practically the entire route. They could have driven faster, but Ricketts says, “Safety is No. 1: Safety first and then reaching the mileage goal with hydrogen.
“If we can be patient, we can make it,” he said of the upcoming trip. “Me and Terry (Young) will do most of the driving of the cars because we’re so fuel sensitive. The others will drive backup vehicles.
“Terry is a gifted engineer. There is no way in the world I would attempt this without Terry Young. I would put Terry up against any engineer in the country. The young man can do anything. He’s so laidback. I tell him what I want and he does it. I’m the visionary and he’s the mechanic. I can see it happen and he makes it happen.”
Young, a 1990 MTSU graduate with a plant and soil science degree, works about two months a year here in the ag-education garage and raises corn and soybeans on his farm near Woodbury the other months.
“I’m the nuts and bolts. I keep everything running,” Young said, who besides being an ace mechanic, has the experience in electrolysis, the process by which hydrogen can be generated from water for fuel.
“This is my diversion. I’ve been working for him since 1988. I built the race car that set the speed record. That’s my baby,” Young said with a grin pointing to Young Thunder, the car that set the world’s land speed record at 108 miles per hour for a hydrogen-powered vehicle in 1992 at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah.
“It took Jesse James (star of TV’s 'Monster Garage') and $20 million to break it,” he said.
With inventive minds like Young behind Ricketts’ vision, there is hope for America’s come-and-go energy crises and the upward spiraling of gas prices.
“Why am I doing this?” Ricketts asked. “If the Persian Gulf closes down and fuel prices get to $10 a gallon, it would shut this country down. That’s why I am so persistent about this. If we had a national emergency, in six months to a year we could have a system like this ready.
“I feel like I’ve made my contribution to mankind if I pull this off -- to make an impact on the country and the whole world forever. I call it where the rubber meets the road. Now, will it have an impact? I don’t know. If gas stays under $4 a gallon, we probably won’t get too excited about it, but if gas gets over $5 a gallon, we’d start looking at all kinds of alternative fuels."