MIDWEST CITY — There are a lot of logistics involved for Cliff Ricketts and his team as they drive from Georgia to California in a pair of hydrogen-fueled cars.
Ricketts, an agriculture professor at Middle Tennessee State University with an interest in alternative fuels, said his team packed its own fuel since it is facing a challenge similar to the Wright brothers, who embarked on their maiden flight without an airport.
“We have no fueling stations,” he said.
Ricketts stopped Tuesday in Midwest City on his way to Long Beach, Calif. He expects to arrive by Thursday afternoon after starting the week in Tybee Island, Ga.
He has been interested in alternative fuels since the 1978 gasoline crisis.
Ricketts started working with ethanol as a way to help farmers provide their own fuel. He also has run vehicles over the years on biodiesel, cooking oil and methane from cow manure.
“My goal was always to run an engine off water,” he said.
Ricketts said he started down that path in October 1987, but not without some setbacks. He admits his first attempts with hydrogen proved more explosive than productive.
“I've been working on this for 25 years,” he said. “I'm pretty slow.”
Ricketts is convinced he is on track now, with a 2005 Toyota Prius and 1994 Toyota Tercel that run on hydrogen.
The cars are powered by water and the sun, but he said it's not as simple as people might think.
“It's not solar panels on the car and water in the gas tank,” Ricketts said.
Ricketts' team uses an electrolysis unit to separate hydrogen from oxygen in purified water, with electricity derived from solar panels at the university in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The gas is compressed as vehicle fuel.
“My goal has always been to create a hydrogen car with the same power as a gas car,” Ricketts said.
The cars modified by Ricketts and his team can get up to 370 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, making a cross-country trip possible.
He said it costs about $4.75 to produce hydrogen equivalent to a gallon of gasoline, so the process is not economical until gasoline reaches about $5 a gallon.
Still Ricketts feels like his research is beneficial since it shows a way to fuel vehicles with hydrogen in case of an emergency, such as another war in the Middle East that causes a spike in oil prices.
He said the system he developed at Middle Tennessee State would cost about $140,000 to duplicate — likely too much for one family, but affordable enough for a group.
Ricketts said he wanted his trip to demonstrate how hydrogen can be used to replace gasoline or other fossil fuels.
He said there have been some mechanical problems along the way, but they appear to unrelated to the hydrogen.
“It's kind of like climbing Mount Everest. Our goal is to get there,” he said. “We knew there'd be some challenges.”