Tennessee Man Drives Coast to Coast on Almost No Gasoline

Prof. Cliff Ricketts (blue cap) refilling modified Toyota Prius with ethanol mix. (Image Credit: MTSU)

It turns out that Cliff Ricketts, the Tennessee agriculture professor who tried to drive across the country on 10 gallons of gasoline, overestimated.  He's completed his trip, from Tybee Island, Ga. to Long Beach, Calif., on just over two gallons of gas.

"Everything went right," said Ricketts, by cellphone from Long Beach, where he reported he was in view of the Pacific Ocean. "That's the bottom line."

Ricketts, 63, who teaches at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he wanted to help show how the U.S. could make it self less vulnerable to world oil shocks. He said he has been concerned since the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when, after militants in Tehran seized the U.S. embassy there, gasoline prices in America tripled.

"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.," Ricketts said when we first spoke with him, not long after he'd started his trip.  "If that happens, people will go, 'What do we do?' Well, we've got a backup plan."

So he assembled a little fleet - a Toyota Prius refitted to use hydrogen instead of gasoline, a '94 Tercel that also used compressed hydrogen, and a second Prius that ran either on batteries or a mix of 95 percent ethanol and 5 percent gasoline. He made allowances for tanks that wouldn't maintain pressure, hoses that might leak, and so forth, but found that things worked.  Add up the numbers from the three vehicles, and Ricketts says he went 2,582 miles, using 2.15 gallons of regular gasoline.

In fairness, his experiment used a good deal more gas, because he had a small convoy with him as he drove westward. Five MTSU students, two graduates and a retired engineer drove a pickup truck and a van in case he needed help, towing the cars he wasn't using behind them - and carrying his fuel as well. You can't easily find hydrogen filling stations along Interstate 40.

His was a low-budget operation. "I didn't get a lot of big grants," he said. The state of Tennessee provided some of his funding, he said, and MTSU matched it.

One other frustration, he conceded, is that he would have liked using cellulosic ethanol, made from plant waste (remember President Bush talking about fuel from switch grass in 2006?) - but he couldn't find a company in the U.S. that makes and sells it.

Still, Ricketts said he made his point: "We made it and we far exceeded our expectations."  He crossed the country without needing imported petroleum.

How to celebrate? After getting some rest in Los Angeles, Ricketts says they'll make a stop in Las Vegas on the way home.