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Fueling a Passion for Learning

Monday, December 4, 2017
Tim Barckholtz with his family.

Trinity alumnus Tim Barckholtz and his wife Cindy with their four boys at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Multi-faceted career with ExxonMobil leads to scientific breakthroughs from lifelong learner

Tim Barckholtz ’92, B.S. Chemistry and Math

by Mary Denny

The son of two Texas schoolteachers, Tim Barckholtz was instilled early on with a love of learning. “I had always wondered what ‘stuff’ was made of,” he says, but it wasn’t until his high school chemistry teacher ignited that passion for discovery that he realized how much he loved science.

To pursue that passion, Tim chose Trinity after chemistry Professor Emerita Nancy Mills described the opportunity to conduct summer research on campus. He credits Professor Emeritus Michael Doyle’s organic chemistry class with cementing his love of chemistry and remains deeply appreciative of Professor Emeritus John Burke, who became his research adviser and lifelong friend.

Tim’s passion for learning included far more than chemistry, and he welcomed the opportunity Trinity provided to be broadly educated in writing, analysis, history, and the arts, all of which have served him well in his career. As the saying around his office goes, “If you can’t communicate your work, you might as well not have done it.”

Upon graduation, Tim communicated his work well enough to be accepted straight into the inorganic Ph.D. program at Ohio State University—“Go Buckeyes! Beat Michigan!”—and later became the NCR postdoctoral research Fellow at the University of Colorado. After that opportunity, he joined ExxonMobil in 2001, where today he is senior scientific advisor for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering.

Although Tim’s career with the oil giant has spanned an “incredible variety of positions and experiences” he says the general theme has been one of environmental technology R&D with a couple of business assignments mixed in. He began working on a joint program with Toyota on improving automobile engines and was on the team that commercialized a technology for the removal of pollutants from refinery exhaust. There followed a series of  management development assignments that taught him about leadership, management, and the breadth and depth of ExxonMobil and the broader petrochemical industry. From 2007 to 2009 he was in charge of the crude oil supply chain to ExxonMobil’s refineries in Texas and Louisiana. “I consider that my on-the-job MBA,” he grins.  

Since returning to his true love— science and technology— he has been working on carbon dioxide (CO2) capture technology.  Because the existing technology for capturing CO2 is difficult, expensive, and consumes a lot of energy, Tim began in early 2012 looking into a technology called molten carbonate fuel cells that can capture CO2 efficiently and actually produce additional energy (while consuming additional fuel). The technology, for which he has about 30 patents, has expanded from a simple drawing on a piece of paper to a fairly large research project within ExxonMobil and its partner, FuelCell Energy. He is excited about the project’s recent series of promotional television ads, YouTube videos, website articles (www.energyfactor.com), and the small video game they created about it. “It’s still in an R&D program,” Tim says modestly,  “but I am optimistic about the future of this technology.” Third party reviews, analysis, and commentary that share that optimism have appeared in The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and MIT Technology Review, among other prestigious publications.   

If Tim is passionate about carbon capture and its mitigating effect on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, he has good reason. Married for 21 years and the father of four boys, the entire family is active in Scouting and loves the outdoors. At home in “beautiful and scenic Readington, New Jersey—away from the refineries and the hustle and bustle of New York and Philadelphia”— the family has a large garden that produces enough tomatoes and peppers to can several dozen quarts of salsa and tomato sauce. They also grow asparagus, strawberries, okra, and wild raspberries and have a large rose garden.

Off the clock, Tim teaches Sunday school and an occasional science class at one of his children’s schools, judges science fairs, leads a Junior Achievement class, and has “coached more youth sports than I can count.” He jokes that his second job is actually as an Uber driver for his sons’ numerous sports activities, though “they don’t tip very well.” He also serves on the board of America’s Grow-a-Row (AGAR), a nonprofit that grows and gleans fresh produce for those in need.

Despite his busy life, Tim maintains, “I always want to learn more about everything, even what I already know well. I can always learn more about it. One of the great things about my work is that our site has staff members from just about every discipline of science and engineering. It really is a dynamic and vibrant place with plenty to learn every day.”

You can contact Tim at tim.barckholtz [at] gmail.com