After a brief stint as chief chemical engineer at Mobil Field Research Laboratories, Kirkbride was appointed distinguished professor at Texas A&M University—the first distinguished professorship established by the Texas legislature—where he taught courses in process design in thermal and catalytic processes, fractional distillation, and heat transfer. He also wrote a textbook, Chemical Engineering Fundamentals (McGraw-Hill, 1947), which was later translated into Spanish and Russian and was adopted by more than 80 colleges and universities worldwide.
While at Texas A&M, Kirkbride first entered public service. In 1946, he was asked to serve as a science advisor for the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, which were expected to produce valuable data on the effects of atmospheric and underwater nuclear explosions. The following year he returned to private industry as vice president for research and development (R&D) at Houdry Process Corporation in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. As head of the company’s R&D unit, he oversaw the development and marketing of catalytic processes for refining and processes for manufacturing polyurethane and butadiene. In 1952, as president and chairman of the board, Kirkbride restored the bankrupt company to fiscal health, collecting a backlog of some $20 million in unpaid royalties and building its licensing business back to the point that its corporate parent, Sun Oil Company, could sell the firm. He also started Houdry’s chemical marketing department and established an atomic energy department in its wholly owned subsidiary, Catalytic Construction Company. While at Houdry, he received the first of his more than 22 patents for energy recovery and conversion processes; his last patents were awarded posthumously in 2000 and 2001.
Kirkbride made his most important contributions to the North American energy industry during his 14-year relationship with Sun Oil Company, where he was executive director for the research, engineering, and patent departments from 1956 to 1960 and vice president from 1960 to his retirement in 1970. Under his leadership, research at Sun led to the development of practical ways of recovering oil from Athabascan tar