Cliff Ricketts lives on a farm in Mt. Juliet, where he grew up. As a child, he loved to "tinker" with things like old farm equipment. That tinkering has come a long way, and on Saturday he struck out on a cross-country expedition, one that could be historic alongside Orville and Wilbur's first flight in 1903.
He, along with his team that includes Mt. Juliet High School graduate Rick Pressley, left from Tybee Island, Ga. with a destination of Long Beach, Calif.
What makes it "historic" is the team is traveling in a Toyota Tercel powered by sun and water. It was adapted to run off hydrogen gas Ricketts extracted from water. Last year, Ricketts and hydrogen expert Terry Young drove 1,700 miles using 95 percent ethanol and 5 percent gas. This year, they plan to make the drive on solely hydrogen made from the sun. It will take five days for the 2,600-mile journey.
Ricketts is a longtime professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His list of accomplishments in the field of agriculture and science are many. Ever since he was a little boy on the farm, he wanted to figure out how to save on energy.
"I remember we had to milk all the cows twice a day," he said. "I knew there had to be a better way, just like a better way to fuel cars and save the environment."
Milking cows has come a long way, and Ricketts believes in the near future powering automobiles with hydrogen from water and the sun will be the wave of the future.
In layman's terms, hydrogen is a natural gas found in water.
Ricketts ran his first hydrogen engine for eight seconds on Oct. 14, 1987. After several other engines were built and tested, in 1991 he and his team of students set the land speed record for hydrogen at the Bonneville Salt Flats and that held for about 15 years.
"Eight years ago I drove a solar-powered vehicle [an adapted Nissan truck] across the width of Tennessee following Route 231 in one day," he said.
Many call him a modern-day Davy Crockett, a trailblazer in alternative fuel.
During the 1982 World's Fair, he made six presentations that showed how to get ethanol from corn.
"I've even built vehicles which run off methane from cows," he said.
Two years ago, he and his team exceeded their expectations, according to Ricketts.
They drove on power made from the sun from Bristol, Va. to West Memphis, Ark. in one day in a 1994 Toyota Tercel. They started with 5,000 pounds of hydrogen pressure, which was put into two tanks, but had 900 pounds of that pressure remaining at the end of their journey. They could have gone another 80 miles or so.
The little Tercel is nicknamed, "Forces of Nature."
"We drove the car across the state more than 500 miles on two forces of nature, the sun and water," he said. "With this system, every commuter could drive on sun and hydrogen from water as the energy sources."
To produce hydrogen, tap water is de-ionized and then is sent to an electrolysis unit. When that unit is running, it uses stored solar-produced electricity. The hydrogen comes out and goes into two, 500-gallon storage tanks and then is compressed. The car is then filled with hydrogen in two tanks, and the car is then powered.
The implications of this are enormous. Sometime in the future Americans could stop their dependence on foreign or even domestic oil.
Ricketts said that's just one of the benefits. This form of fuel has virtually no pollution.
"I could literally take the water that drips out of the tailpipe and drink it," said Ricketts.
It would take hydrogen from just 22 gallons of water to drive from New York to Los Angeles.
And, Ricketts believes that there are implications for world peace.
"We know that some of the unrest and wars in the Middle East are because of the reserves of oil found there," he noted.
He said it doesn't take much money to adapt a regular car engine to include components to run on hydrogen.
"It could be a back-up system," he said.
However, the biggest issue at this time for this way to fuel automobiles is the fact that there's not much hydrogen in the area, whereas California has many hydrogen fueling stations. Gas there these days is $5 a gallon, on average.
"They were on the front end of the movement," said Ricketts.
For years, hydrogen is pulled from natural gas and coal.
"Mine comes from water," he said.
At this initial stage of the movement, the price of hydrogen is what's holding it back for car fuel. It's about $4.50 a gallon.
"It's hard to beat anything at the current $ 3.69 a gallon price of gas," said Ricketts. "But we can all remember when gas was near $5. If that were the case again, everyone would be all over this method and me. But, people are complacent and content, not thinking of the future."
Ricketts said his whole premise for the constant pursuit to get fuel from sun and water is that if there was a national emergency, such as another major war, there could be no oil and America would be paralyzed. Currently, America would be shut down with no foreign oil and could be blackmailed by foreign governments, he said.
The economy and the state of the environment will dictate how soon America will be going to hydrogen gas pumps to fuel cars, said Ricketts.
A few more oil spills like America saw off the coast of Louisiana two years ago also cause people to pause and decide to support more research on this subject, according to Ricketts.
"We have demonstrated that in case of a national emergency, MTSU has a system in place to demonstrate how every commuter in the country could drive off sun and hydrogen from water," he said.
As of noon Monday, Ricketts was in Jackson, Tenn.