Fueling His Passion

March 4, 2010

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Inside a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) lab building tucked away in the west end of campus, a gray-haired man tinkers with equipment in a biofuels lab. Tim Turner is a baby boomer on a crusade, trying to refine a process that can turn animal fat and waste grease into hydrocarbon fuels.

He developed the process three years ago with three NC State professors. Although Turner could be mistaken for a professor himself, he’s actually a 57-year-old graduate student embarking on a career in the green economy.

Turner earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from NC State in the late 1970s and spent more than two decades as a software developer and aerospace industry consultant.

Then, the 9/11 terrorist attacks put him on a new path of delving into a long-held interest in sustainable energy.

“We have an unsustainable energy economy based on imports,” he said. “September 11th really crystallized everything for me.”

tim turner

After age 50, Tim Turner gave up his career as a software developer and aerospace industry consultant to return to graduate school to study biofuels.

Turner initially planned to focus on hydrogen fuel cells, but once he learned about biodiesel through work at the North Carolina Solar Center on campus, he figured that could be a more immediate solution to U.S. energy needs.

With encouragement from his wife and their children, Turner left his consulting business behind and returned to school full time. He’s since won a National Science Foundation fellowship to support his research and a Small Business Innovation Research grant for a start-up he formed to test biofuels.

He’s also part of the team using a $2 million federal stimulus grant to find ways to transform oils from algae into fuel.

“I’ve always preferred the creative and problem-solving aspects of engineering,” he said, adding that he’s been able to draw on his previous experience for his research. “It’s all cumulative.

“The way to come up with new technology is to make connections with what you already know.”

Family support, both emotionally and financially, was crucial to his success, Turner said, and he cautions other older adults looking to follow a similar path.

“This has to be something you really want,” he said. “The system isn’t really expecting someone like me.”

For example, he’s not interested in grading papers at his stage in life, as young graduate students do.

“I was looking for a collaborative research relationship that would take advantage of my experience,” he said.

He seems to have found one with MAE Professor Bill Roberts, who’s 12 years his junior. Roberts says Turner’s background has been beneficial to the biofuels research, and other graduate students view him as a second professor in the lab.

“Tim has many productive years ahead of him,” Roberts said, “and he’s doing something important with them.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Results: Research and Graduate Studies at North Carolina State University. The NC State Graduate School will celebrate its second annual Graduate Education Week from Saturday, March 6th, through Thursday, March 11th. Events begin on Saturday with service to the community – helping Habitat for Humanity build a home. Other events include the International Student Fair and Deans vs. Grads Bowling Night. For more information, visit The Graduate School.