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VOL. 37 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 08, 2013

No gas? No problem for MTSU team's cross-country drive

By Tony Troiano

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MTSU professor Cliff Ricketts stands next to the Toyota Prius that finished the final leg of the 2,582-mile coast-to-coast concluding in Long Beach, Calif., March 8, 2012. The vehicle used only 2.15 gallons of gas after driving 2,582 miles.

-- Mtsu News And Media Relations | David Bro

Cliff Ricketts has traveled 2,582 miles by car using only 2.15 gallons of gas.

He isn’t satisfied.

This week he’ll repeat that 2012 journey, this time with a goal of using no gasoline.

Ricketts, a Middle Tennessee State University professor in the School of Agribusiness and Agriscience, leaves today from Tybee Island, Ga., with a team of students headed to Long Beach, Calif., using alternative fuels, hydrogen from water produced at MTSU and solar power to keep the vehicles running.

Ricketts, 64 years old and with 37 years experience in his field, engineered a system that has solar panels producing electricity, which is then used to run an electrolysis unit that produces the hydrogen.

“We, and I mean countless students and visiting advisors, have worked very hard in researching ways to put fossil fuels on the back burner,” Ricketts says. “It has literally taken 26 years to manufacture a vehicle and system to go cross country. We are proud to demonstrate how the American citizen can use sun and water to power their vehicles.”

The professor and an eight-person student team made a similar trip last year, using only 2.15 gallons of gas (95 percent E95 ethanol and 5 percent gas). Fuel sources were solar and hydrogen, a plug-in hybrid drawing 95 percent ethanol and five percent gas, and two 10-kilowatt-hour battery packs.

This year’s route is the same as last year’s exhibition run: Tybee Island, Atlanta, Murfreesboro, Fort Smith, Ark., Santa Rosa, N.M., Kingman, Ariz., and the finish line, Long Beach.

Three cars are being used on this year’s trip, a 1994 Toyota Tercel and two Toyota Priuses (2005 and 2007).

Vehicles not in use at times will be towed, and there will be a pick-up truck and a trailer babysitting seven hydrogen fueling tanks.

Ricketts checks a pressure gauge for hydrogen inside the 1994 Toyota Tercel. On the first day of his coast-to-coast trip in 2012, the pressure gauge read slightly above 0 after driving from south of Atlanta (with 3,600 pounds of pressure to start) the rest of the way to MTSU. At I-24 exit 114 in Manchester, the gauge registered about 500.

-- Mtsu News And Media Relations

“I’ve been working with Dr. Ricketts for some time focusing on hydrogen,” says graduate student Terry Young. “I like to think I’m indispensable. I kind of know how everything works and am the mechanic for the cars. What we do is exciting. We’re working to make our future better.”

Ricketts and his students have run the gamut testing energy options. They have worked with ethanol from corn, hydrogen from water, diesel from soybean oil and cow manure (methane). Once hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide are removed, the gas that remains is natural gas.

Ricketts became passionate about alternative fuels during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and became increasingly concerned about the role of the-then Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

A farmer advocate, Ricketts and his students began work with the idea of making the American farmer energy independent.

“The world is becoming more and more dangerous,’’ Ricketts says. “My objective is to have everyone energy efficient in case of a national crisis. We must be prepared.”

Ricketts has been honored frequently for his endeavors. He testified before Congress in 2006 on flex-fuel hybrids and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. He is visited by military experts and academic scholars.

Researchers of national prominence have advised on his projects.

On a somewhat sporting note, one of Ricketts’ cars held for 15 years the land speed record for a hydrogen vehicle at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

“This is fun work for a very necessary cause,” says graduate student Mike Simms. “I could count the days waiting for fossil fuels to run out. I am proud to learn and be part of Dr. Ricketts’ team working on alternative fuel sources. He is the start and end when it comes to this topic.”

With gas prices rising dramatically in recent weeks, Ricketts maintains hydrogen is the main candidate for revitalizing renewable primary energy sources due to its compatibility with any type of source, as well as ecological impact on near zero. Researchers are doing intense work in this area, along with solar, he explains.

“Think of each commuter in the country driving to work with the sun and water as their energy,” Ricketts says.

“People will challenge me and ask: ‘what’s next?,’ he says. “We have demonstrated the various alternate means for small vehicles.

“The next challenge is to develop alternatives for the trucking industry. Approximately 64 percent of the oil consumed in the United States is used by the transportation industry. The future of diesel engines derives from green algae where the algae’s oil can be extracted.’’

But first he plans to go coast-to-coast without a drop of gas.

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