MTSU’s Hydrogen-Solar Car Gets Boost from Farm Credit Services of Mid-America

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The car will be making a coast-to-coast trip during spring break in a car powered only by hydrogen, solar energy, and ten gallons of cellulosic ethanol.

Since childhood, Cliff Ricketts has had a passion for finding a way to fuel engines with hydrogen derived from water. As a professor of agriscience at Middle Tennessee State University, he’s been working on various alternative fuels for the better part of 35 years, coming ever closer to his ultimate goal.

Now, thanks to a $15,000 grant from Farm Credit Services of Mid-America which triggered matching funds from the University, Ricketts and a group of student volunteers will be making a coast-to-coast trip during spring break in a car powered only by hydrogen, solar energy, and ten gallons of cellulosic ethanol.

“This research has some direct implications for American agriculture, and that’s why I appreciate Farm Credit’s donation,” said Ricketts. “We wouldn’t be able to make this trip without their assistance.”

Jack Swanson, Assistant Vice President for Farm Credit, presenting a $15,000 check to Dr. Cliff Ricketts, Professor of Agricultural Education, Middle Tennessee State University for the fuel research program.

The trip will begin in early March in Savannah, GA in a converted Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid. On each 750-mile leg of the trip, the first 100 miles will be powered by solar energy, followed by 200 miles of hydrogen gas power. The next 350 miles will be fueled by 85 percent cellulosic ethanol, with the last 100 miles coming from on-board regeneration of the solar-powered batteries. Then the car will be refilled with hydrogen and re-charged solar batteries from an accompanying mobile refueling station that is loaded on a truck and trailer manned by the students. Five days later the car and support crew will roll into Long Beach, CA. “I figure we’ll average about 60 miles per hour, “said Ricketts. “A car powered by hydrogen runs just as well as one powered by gasoline.”

Although Ricketts’ research has obvious broad implications, the original motivation for it began in 1978 during the Iranian hostage situation and resulting energy crisis, when it was feared that American farmers might not have fuel to harvest their crops. He originally started experimenting with ethanol, then moved on to methane that had been derived from cow manure, then to biodiesel. In 1987, he finally was able start a Briggs & Stratton engine with hydrogen that had been obtained from a process called electrolysis. Subsequent research led to the development of a car that set a land speed record for hydrogen-powered vehicles on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in 1992, a record that stood for 15 years. (Incidentally, this car was sponsored by the Murfreesboro PCA, a forerunner of Farm Credit Services).

Ricketts readily acknowledges that producing hydrogen from water is not yet price competitive with gasoline, but he feels that in times of national emergencies it could serve as a viable backup source of energy. Correspondingly, he feels that his research has important implications for international peace, the American economy, the environment, and national security.

One of Ricketts’ former student volunteers is Jack Swanson, now an assistant vice president for Farm Credit, based out of the ag lending cooperative’s Lebanon, TN field office. Swanson can still readily identify with his current-day counterparts.

“Those students aren’t receiving any money or grades for helping with this project,” said Swanson. “They do it because they like Doc and the research he does.”

In a twist of fate, Swanson later became the lending officer for Ricketts, who raises beef cattle on the side and whose family has received a Heritage Farm Award as 50-year, third-generation Farm Credit customers. In the course of doing business, Swanson would always ask his old prof about his family and his research, and learned of Ricketts’ need for funding for this phase of the project.

“When I heard about it, I couldn’t think of anything that would be a better use of our stewardship funds,” said Swanson. “I feel our stewardship program is one of the more important things we do as an agricultural lender, and the crux of Dr. Ricketts’ program is to help make the U.S. energy independent. It’s part of our mission to give back some of our earnings to those programs that fuel the future of agriculture.”

Although running coast to coast on nothing but hydrogen, sun and ethanol will be a real shining moment, Ricketts has plans to top that in the summer of 2013, making the same trip on hydrogen from water and solar power alone. “No goals, no glory,” he smiled.

About Farm Credit Services of Mid-America

Farm Credit Services of Mid-America is a $18 billion financial services cooperative serving over 92,500 farmers, agribusinesses and rural residents in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee. The association provides loans for all farm and rural living purposes including including real estate, operating loans,equipment loans, and housing loans. FCS also provides an array of financial services, including crop insurance and leases. For more information about Farm Credit, call 1-800-444-FARM or visit them on the web at

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