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Out Of Gas | Spring 2006 Out Here Magazine

University professor Cliff Ricketts, whose truck runs on electricity and hydrogen, has also worked on and researched alternative fuels developed from cow manure and corn.

Ag professor seeks alternative fuels

By Noble Sprayberry

Photography by Matthew Starling

Driving the 27 miles from his home to work in the pickup truck dubbed Forces of Nature, Cliff Ricketts doesn't worry about the next gas station.

The 1999 Nissan runs on electricity and hydrogen, and a solar collector system at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., provides the juice. The trip costs about $1.40 based on local electric rates, Ricketts says.

The truck, destined for future modifications, represents the latest innovation for a program to explore the boundaries of alternative fuel vehicles.

"This has so much impact," Ricketts says. "It has impact on world peace. Impact on the trade imbalance. It's just a no-brainer."

Rocketing gas prices and concerns over dependence on foreign oil caught the attention of Ricketts, an MTSU professor of Agribusiness and Agriscience and head of the university's alternative fuel vehicles program.

While the concerns may seem modern, Ricketts says his interest began in the late 1970s, when the Ayatollah Khomeini governed Iran, a hostage crisis captured the nation's attention, and gas prices soared to more than $1.80. Adjusted for inflation, those prices would top $4 today, he says.

Ricketts jokes that few of his current students recognize Khomeini's name but the interest in alternative fuels remains.

Initially, Ricketts focused on corn as a fuel alternative, turning the grain into ethanol. At the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, TN, he demonstrated a Chevrolet Corvette that ran on ethanol.

"We actually accomplished our objectives, which was to make the American farmer independent in case of emergency," he says.

Other research followed, including a look at using cow manure to generate methane gas for fuel. Eventually, though, Ricketts focused on hydrogen and later on solar power.

In 1991, Ricketts' team set a world record for the fastest hydrogen-powered vehicle, a truck that topped 108 mph on the salt flats of the California desert.

His research caught the eye of Tractor Supply Company, who is now a supporter of Ricketts' alternative fuel projects.

Ricketts dreams of more than just a fuel-efficient vehicle. Instead, he hopes to reshape the system for fueling and operating cars and trucks.

Forces of Nature is one part of the prototype system. The truck runs on hydrogen gas produced by passing electric current through water. Ricketts likes to say it runs on water.

But obviously, the system needs electricity to operate. That's where the solar power system on campus goes to work. The solar cells store electricity, which is used to charge the truck's batteries. Any extra energy flows into the local power grid, actually generating more power than the truck uses, Ricketts says.

The sun creates the electricity. Water supplies a source of hydrogen. Once perfected, the system could provide a viable option for keeping cars running, Ricketts says.

For now, there's work to do.

"This is a prototype, just like the first computer was in the thousands of dollars and the first big-screen TVs were $7,000 or $8,000," he says. "Once it catches on, the price is going to drop to an affordable rate."

Noble Sprayberry is a freelance writer in Dallas.