Cliff Ricketts is on a mission. He is trying to drive across the country, from Savannah, Ga., to Long Beach, Calif., on less than 10 gallons of gasoline.
"This is a passion of mine," he said by cellphone. Ricketts, 63, a professor of agricultural education at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., says he's been concerned about American dependence on imported oil since 1979, when Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the price of gasoline in the ensuing international crisis tripled, to $1.50 per gallon.
"In case there was a national emergency now, it wouldn't be unrealistic for gas to go to $10 or $15 a gallon in the U.S.," he said. "If that happens, people will go, 'What do we do?' Well, we've got a backup plan."
Ricketts, with some small research grants and help from MTSU students, has refitted three used cars - two Toyota Priuses and a 1994 Toyota Tercel - to run on compressed hydrogen, batteries, or E95, which is mostly ethanol with a little conventional gasoline mixed in.
The trip is 2,532 miles, not counting detours for food or motels, and it's complicated.
"My big goal," he said, "is to go coast to coast on sun and water" - extracting hydrogen from water in the lab with solar power - but he ran into trouble getting the needed hydrogen tanks to make the trip. That's why he switched to E95; otherwise the trip would be gasoline-free.
He spoke by cellphone from Interstate 40, "about 30 miles this side of Memphis," as he was looking for a fast-food place where he and his little convoy could find enough space to park. Ricketts himself may make the voyage on 10 gallons, but assistants are towing the other two vehicles using conventionally-fueled vans. He started his trip by sticking his foot in the Atlantic Ocean near Savannah on Saturday, and hopes to reach the Pacific around Thursday.
Ricketts said he's not trying to send an environmental message, though there are "environmental implications" - fewer emissions per car - and "peace implications" as well, if petroleum becomes less of an international issue.
Can he really make the trip, in reasonable comfort and at reasonable expense, on 10 gallons of gas? The bestselling sedan in the United States, the Toyota Camry, is rated by the EPA as getting 28 mpg with a 4-cylinder engine; it would burn a little more than 90 gallons to go on Ricketts' trip. With gas prices this week at an average of $3.79 per gallon, fuel for a cross-country trip in a Camry would run about $350.
Ricketts said refitting a 2007 Prius to run on hydrogen and battery power cost about $4,000 for hydrogen tanks and $1,500 to convert the car from conventional gasoline. He said those costs would likely go down if gasoline-free vehicles ever went into mass production.
How well will the equipment work? That, said Ricketts, is why he's westbound today.
"A lot of professors just do research," he said. "We've got to get out there on the front lines. The rubber has to meet the road."