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Motorcycle school hopes to rev up enrollment with ‘green’ choppers

Tommy Creal, 23, made a name for himself in Chicago teaching people how to build custom motorcycles from scratch. His latest one-of-a-kind bike will run on purified water — hydrogen, actually — instead of gasoline.

Tommy Creal with chopper
MinnPost photo by Dan Haugen
Tommy Creal and one of his latest custom-built chopper motorcycles.

Tommy Creal builds motorcycles that are meant to catch the eye’s attention.

That effect is intensified here in this sprawling, basement shop room beneath Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) where a pair of Creal’s custom choppers and all their flashy chrome curves share the space with rows of dull, boxy fans and air ducts used by the college’s HVAC program.

Creal, 23, made a name for himself in Chicago teaching people how to build these bikes from scratch during a series of three-day boot camps. The motorcycles he and his students built over the past four years are one-of-a-kind bikes. And that will certainly be true of Creal’s latest machine. Its most distinguishing feature: It’ll run on purified water instead of gasoline.

Technically, the bike will be powered by hydrogen. Water goes into the fuel tank, where an electrical charge splits the hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The hydrogen is then siphoned into a second fuel tank, where it’s combusted to power the engine.

Bike-building camp
It’s a complicated process, but Creal is confident in his methods. So confident that he’s teaching a hydrogen bike-building boot camp this fall at MCTC. Meanwhile, Chopper College, the company Creal owns with his father, Tom Creal, is developing a wide range of alternative-fuel motorcycles — from ethanol to algae — that have the look, feel and sound of conventional bikes.

Creal hopes “green” choppers will raise the school’s profile, but could they also help train and inspired the city’s future green workforce?

Creal grew up outside of Chicago. He got his first dirt bike when he was 10. The first thing he did was take it apart. He never ended up riding that toy, he says. He graduated to riding and tinkering with real motorcycles as soon as he turned 15, and when he was 19, his father helped him start Chopper College. The technical school became well-known for its weekend bike-building workshops, which have drawn about 1,500 gearheads from across the country and landed Creal and his buddies on the cover of the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine.

“Green” wasn’t a part of Creal’s vocabulary back then. The motorcycle crowd he comes from isn’t the one riding two wheels because of back-of-the-envelope carbon footprint calculations. These riders are often hostile toward environmental regulations. In a mission to make bikes as loud as possible, some chopper owners rip out mufflers and other parts that minimize both noise and pollution. California regulators are in an ongoing battle with bikers to try to rein in the practice, with heavy fines proposed for motorcyclists who illegally tamper with emission controls.

That’s the camp Creal comes from: “I was one of those hard bikers. I’m never going to go green. I always want gasoline.”

Changing with the market
But a good marketing opportunity can make a businessman change. Chopper College’s initial popularity paralleled the rising profile of chopper motorcycles, which had become a cable-TV hit with the program “American Choppers.” Soon other shops were offering similar bike-building programs, and it became tougher to stand out from the crowd, Creal says. He decided he needed a new niche, and that being a “green” chopper pioneer could help boost enrollment and raise his status in the motorcycle world.

“Going Green” is now emblazoned on Creal’s business cards. It’s a cliche, unoriginal and meaningless, but Creal and his father have ambitious plans to put substance behind the slogan.

A relationship brought Creal to the Twin Cities late last year. Over the summer, he contacted MCTC about partnering to get his program up and rolling in the Twin Cities. He’s scheduled to teach 14 courses at the college this fall, most of them boot camps or weeknight sessions in nuts-and-bolts motorcycle skills, such as welding, custom painting and engine theory. The “green” course offerings this semester include hydrogen and biofuel bike-building boot camps, along with a green products and parts class. Tuition ranges from $250 to $2,500 per course.

The hydrogen bike-building boot camp is being offered Nov. 16-20 and Dec. 7-11 and costs $1,895 for five five-hour sessions. Students will collaborate on assembling a single bike, which will then be displayed on campus and possibly be taken on tour as a demo and sold to a customer. The class fee doesn’t include the cost of parts students would need to build their own, but they do get a discount on parts ordered through Chopper College, says Creal. He estimates that the hydrogen, biofuel and other alternative-fuel bikes can be built for under $15,000. That’s about the same amount it costs for full kit to build traditional choppers, which retail for anywhere between $25,000 and $150,000 depending on the designer and type of customization.

Tommy Creal
MinnPost photo by Dan Haugen
Tommy Creal

Creal’s next step: buying property for a permanent Chopper College campus, which will include a School of Green Technology building. Creal envisions a space where students are learning the technology side by side with researchers who are developing new alternative-fuel engines.

So far, his school’s R&D work has been done with the help of some undisclosed partner companies. They include a U.S. oil company, he says, and three other companies his father discovered during his travels as a forensic accountant. (The elder Tom Creal specializes in helping post-conflict countries recover stolen assets and counts the United Nations as one of his clients.) An algae firm in Italy and a biomass producer in Liberia are co-developing engine technology with Chopper College for bikes that run on algae and woodchips, Creal says. The oil company has partnered on perfecting bikes that run on ethanol, methanol and propane.

In an e-mail interview last week, Tom Creal, who was on a business trip in Liberia, said fuel developers see their bikes as ideal marketing vehicles.

“A custom built chopper is a magnet for attention,” Tom Creal wrote. “I can sit in the little country of Liberia at the Mamba Point hotel and not one evening goes by that a Fortune 100 company is not there and wants to talk about renewable energy. And everyone is convinced that if drivers are convinced that motorcycles can run on a different type of fuel, then so can cars.”

Tommy Creal’s specialty is taking their partners’ engine technology and finding ways to package it so that it has the look, feel and sound of a conventional bike.

“My goal is to make these bikes so similar that the rider will never know the difference,” says Creal. And he wants to be the first to accomplish that feat.

Chopper College faces growing competition
Chopper College isn’t without competition on that front. Honda has announced plans to put a hydrogen-powered motorcycle on the road in 2015. A pair of Pennsylvania college students rolled out a crude, handmade hydrogen bike earlier this year, though it tops out at 20 miles per hour and lacks the cool factor Creal’s audience demands. That can’t be said, however, about the electric chopper unveiled earlier this month by the Orange County Choppers crew. (The bike will be the subject of an “American Choppers” episode on Oct. 22 on TLC.)

Despite all the tinkering, the environmental advantage and the market demand for such bikes are unclear.

Creal wasn’t able to provide data about the bikes’ carbon footprints. Many of the variables depend on the fuel source. The wood chip fuel, for example, which involves converting the chips into a charged liquid fuel, may result in less carbon coming from the motorcycle’s tailpipe, but if the material is harvested in a way that encourages deforestation, the environmental negatives could far outweigh the positives. Converting hydrogen to a combustible fuel currently involves an electricity-intensive process that cancels out much of its environmental gain.

Mike Hoen, a salesman at Tousley Motorsports in White Bear Lake, said he’s unaware of any demand for alternative-fuel motorcycles. All of the bikes on its lot run on gasoline, and he’s never been asked for anything else. “I’ve been here quite a while, and I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question,” Hoen says. It’s a cool idea, he admits, but most of the bikes the firm sells already get close to 50 mpg and are considered fuel-efficient by most consumers. “I think if you’re the first kid on the block, you’re probably going to see some sales, but I haven’t been asked.”

Chopper College is being welcomed by city, academic and industry officials in part because of its potential to train and inspire the state’s future green workforce.

The market for these technologies might not exist yet, but it’s a positive “just getting people familiar with the range of clean vehicle and fuel technology,” says Emily Stern, a project coordinator with the city’s economic development department. “They’re not only working on these technologies, but they’re also imparting that knowledge to folks that are taking part in their classes.”

Stern’s department has been referring real-estate leads to Chopper College in hopes of landing its permanent campus in the city. Creal is also getting help with referral connections from the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, a nonprofit that promotes bioscience businesses in the state.

“I like that it offers a real hands-on approach to those with an interest not only in bikes but, more broadly, the alternative energy or renewable energy field,” says Gregg Mast, a program manager at the BioBusiness Alliance.

Program benefits community/technical college, too
Chopper College’s partnership with MCTC is part of a broader effort to green that school’s curriculum, says Jess Niebuhr, MCTC’s dean of continuing education. It’s a challenge for educators, because despite all the rhetoric from politicians and environmentalists, the “green economy” is still very small and very immature, with many of its jobs still in the conceptual phase.

“We’re all really scrambling to figure out where the jobs are going to be,” says Niebuhr, but today they’re just not hearing from employers demanding green skills.

The Chopper College approach fits MCTC’s current approach because it piggy-backs green skills on a curriculum of basic skills that are in demand today and should be for a long time. MCTC hopes to find new applications for the knowledge Creal brings to the school. Niebuhr says she envisions his alternative-fuel courses potentially spinning off other small-engine courses. Another area they hope to develop is corporate retreats, where a team of executives would spend a weekend building an alternative-fuel motorcycle together.

Dana Lonn, who manages the research and development division for the Toro Co., said it’s conceivable that in another five or 10 years Toro will be one of several companies hiring scores of hydrogen engineers and technicians, but it’s far from certain and just as likely that other alternative fuels will emerge instead as the most commercially successful.

“You can build a case for hydrogen,” Lonn says, but the same is true for other fuels. Toro is exploring in a wide range of fuels and technologies, including hydrogen, that could be used to power the maintenance vehicles of tomorrow. His advice to students today: Learn the basics, both the science and skills, to be prepared for whatever comes next.

That’s what Creal says he plans to relay in his courses, teaching the basics while chasing the next big thing.

“I want to be the youngest guy out there doing the green bikes, while still keeping the old-school traditional choppers going,” Creal says. “And that’s going to be the biggest attraction about Chopper College. We’ll start you from square one and then we’ll put you in the year 2050.”

Dan Haugen is a freelance journalist who writes about business, technology and the environment. Contact him at dhaugen (at) minnpost (dot) com.