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Tennessee professor makes ‘contribution to mankind’ with cross-country drive

Lori Johnston

A professor at Middle Tennessee State University accomplished a lifelong goal when he traveled across the country in March 2013 without using gas purchased at the pump.

Professor Cliff Ricketts, 64, used hydrogen derived from water to fuel the 2,600-mile journey, which began March 9 in Tybee Island, Ga., and ended March 14 in Long Beach, Calif. Ricketts and a backup driver, Terry Young, switched between two vehicles – a 1994 Toyota Tercel and a 2005 Toyota Prius. Ricketts, an agribusiness professor and alternative fuels researcher, separated hydrogen from water using a solar process in his lab at the university.

Ricketts chatted about how the 1979 Iran hostage crisis led by the anti-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – and depicted in Oscar-winning best picture “Argo” – led to his subsequent 35 years of research and the recent voyage.

When did your research begin?

It started with Ayatollah, when they took hostages. At the same time, the Middle Eastern countries started shutting off oil supply in the Persian Gulf. (America’s) gas prices tripled. (Because of the cost of gas) I was afraid that the American farmer wouldn’t be able to harvest their crops, so I wanted to come up with an alternative fuel. I was on the front end of the ethanol movement. We made ethanol from corn. I ran engines off methane from cow manure, then biodiesel, then solar electricity. My dream always was to run engines off water. I wanted to use sun and water.

On your trip, how often did you have to stop to refuel?

A lot of people looked for solar panels on my (car’s) rooftop and water in the gas tank. Well, it didn’t work that way. We had hydrogen tanks on a trailer (a research team accompanied Ricketts, driving separate vehicles with hydrogen tanks in them). We would have to stop about every 200 miles and refuel.

How fast did you refuel?

It was kind of like a NASCAR pit crew. Our first fueling stop took 30 minutes. At the end, we got them down to two to five minutes. We just pulled off on the side of the road. There were no airports when the Wright brothers flew the first plane. There were no (hydrogen) fueling stations when we went across the country. We took our own fuel with us.

Did the cars experience any problems along the way?

One of our hydrogen tanks was leaking hydrogen. If we hadn’t listened to one of our guys (on the trip), it would have messed up the fueling strategy, but we saved the hydrogen (in the end).

Do you think any changes will result from your trip?

I just wanted to show that it can be done, that we have another alternative. We don’t need to be blackmailed by another country. (I wanted to) show how we could be energy independent, if needed. I’m probably 25 or 50 years ahead of my time. This was my contribution to mankind.

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