Making it across the country on animal fat

Middle Tennessee State University professor Cliff Ricketts has driven coast-to-coast on fumes — in 2012 on only 2.15 gallons of petroleum; and in 2013, no gas at all.

What’s next? It’s a question the alternative fuels researcher is often asked.

The answer comes Nov. 6-13 during a 3,550-mile cross-country expedition from Key West, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, with the route taking him back through Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for a brief stop at his research base at the MTSU campus before heading west on his latest adventure.

The 2014 quest involves Ricketts driving a 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit pickup truck on pure biodiesel from waste animal fat mainly from chickens and waste vegetable oil from MTSU dining facilities. Call it Southern fried fuel — with a full tank carrying him about 550 miles before needing to refuel.

“This has viability for not only daily driving, but also big semi-trucks,” said Ricketts, who admits there is a lot of emotion attached to petroleum prices. “Gas is one dollar less now than when it reached its peak, and people are pretty content right now.”

Knowing gas prices will rise again, the 38-year veteran School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty member knows pure biodiesel is a nontoxic, biodegradable, sulfur-free, renewable fuel. Using biodiesel could make a major impact on U.S. petroleum consumption.

“My goal and passion is to keep the U.S. from using foreign oil,” he said.

So he’s taking the five-speed diesel pickup on a cross-country trek using no diesel and no gasoline. Ricketts chose this fuel source after considering green algae, but was unable to obtain the amount needed to make the trip.

Along with Florida and Washington, this month’s mission will travel by interstate highways through 13 states. Others include Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Three MTSU students and two Metro Nashville Public Schools teachers will be part of the travel party driving from Murfreesboro to Key West, where the coast-to-coast expedition will begin.

The students include junior Abby Barlow of McMinnville, Tennessee, sophomore Lindsey Rutherford of White Pine, Tennessee, and senior Fleschia Johnson of Smyrna, Tennessee. Barlow will be making the Key West to Murfreesboro portion of the trip. Rutherford and Johnson plan to travel with the group from Key West to Seattle.

The trip leader said the three young women will witness “the diversity of agriculture” on the trip. He anticipates they will keep notebooks to not only document the research but also view the agricultural variety — soybeans, cotton, horses, aquatic, landscaping and more — along the route.

“Agriculture goes far beyond cows, sows and plows,” he said. “Agriculture is so diverse.”

MTSU alumna Lucy “Max” Prestwood, who teaches agriculture at Glencliff High School in Nashville, will go.

Most of the trip will be fueled by pure biodiesel from waste animal (chicken) fat given by Brentwood, Tennessee-based Delek US, plus biodiesel made at MTSU and utilized in equipment at the Tennessee Livestock Center and MTSU farm in Lascassas, Tennessee. Ricketts’ Delek fuel came from its processing plant in Crossett, Arkansas.

The Delek Crossett facility uses a process called transesterification, converting fats so the glycerin in the oil is removed and the fatty acids are combined with alcohol to create a combustible fuel.

Using no gasoline in March 2013, Ricketts and co-driver Terry Young, an MTSU alumnus from Woodbury, Tennessee, drove a 1994 Toyota Tercel and a 2005 Toyota Prius from Tybee Island, Georgia, to Long Beach, California, on solar power and hydrogen from water harnessed at MTSU.

They made a similar trip in March 2012, needing only 2.15 gallons of gas.

MTSU professor’s next coast-to-coast quest at a glance

Who: Cliff Ricketts, Middle Tennessee State University School of Agribusiness and Agriscience professor

What: 3,550-mile cross-country drive from Key West, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, using pure biodiesel from waste animal fat and waste vegetable oil

When: Thursday, Nov. 6, through Thursday, Nov. 13

Where: States he will drive through include Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington

Why: “Agriculture goes far beyond cows, sows and plows,” Ricketts said. “Agriculture is so diverse. I’m doing this to show it is viable, to show it can be used, that there is another alternative fuel out there.”

Misc.: Ricketts’ vehicle this year is a 1981 five-speed diesel Volkswagen Rabbit pickup truck. He anticipates it will travel approximately 550 miles on a full tank of pure biodiesel from waste animal fat in a process called transesterification. He plans to drive across parts of several states on waste vegetable oil from MTSU dining facilities.

MTSU sophomore Lindsey Rutherford of White Pine, Tennessee, and senior Fleschia Johnson of Smyrna, Tennessee, will travel the entire route. Junior Abby Barlow of McMinnville, Tennessee will travel the Key West to Murfreesboro leg of the trip. MTSU alumna Lucy “Max” Prestwood, who teaches at Glencliff High School in Nashville, will make the round trip from Murfreesboro to Key West.

About Cliff Ricketts

Research: Cliff Ricketts has run engines off ethanol from corn, methane, cow manure, soybean oil and hydrogen from water. … He and his students held the world land speed record for a hydrogen-fueled vehicle. … Heavily involved in the National FFA Organization at all levels, Ricketts has made more than 1,000 presentations on leadership and alternative fuels. … In May 2006, Ricketts testified during a U.S. House of Representatives Science Subcommittee on Energy, urging for a focus on flex-fuel plug-in hybrids and noting the potential for using hydrogen in the internal combustion engine component of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles as well.

Age: 66

MTSU title/years of service: Professor/38 years as a School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty member and alternative fuels researcher

Hometown: Mt. Juliet, Tennessee

Education: Earned bachelor’s in 1970 and master’s (’73) degrees from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and doctorate (’82) from Ohio State University

Family: Wife Nancy Ricketts; grown children John Ricketts, Mitzi Pigg and Paul Ricketts; and seven grandchildren

Awards: MTSU Career Achievement Award; MTSU Public Service Award; two-time recipient of MTSU Foundation’s Outstanding Teacher Award; and numerous other honors

Photo caption: Ricketts with the VW truck

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