Michael McQuade-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Michael McQuade Uses Physicist’s Acumen to Tackle Global Energy Challenges

by Amy Pavlak

photo of Michael McQuade

While he was training to be a high-energy particle physicist, J. Michael McQuade (S’ 77, 78, 83) also became a jack-of-all-trades. As he worked on his degrees—bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in physics—he wasn’t just learning high-energy particle physics. He also had to become adept at precision electronics, cryogenics, detectors, theoretical and mathematical physics, and computer science and engineering—all just to participate in one particle physics experiment. That breadth of training helped prepare the Pittsburgh native for his current role as senior vice president of science & technology for United Technologies Corp. UTC, one of the world’s largest engineering and manufacturing companies, develops a range of products under such well-known brands as Carrier heating and air conditioning, Hamilton Sundstrand aerospace systems, Otis elevators and escalators, Pratt & Whitney aircraft and rocket engines, and Sikorsky helicopters. “It’s a very broad company,” says McQuade. “What my background brings is the ability to look at how those pieces can be integrated to make the whole bigger than the sum of the parts.”

Why did you choose to study physics at Carnegie Mellon?

I knew when I was about 12 that I wanted to be a physicist, even if I didn’t yet know what that might mean. And I was a Pittsburgh boy, so Carnegie Mellon was one of the great aspirational schools. During the summer after my freshman year, I was fortunate to work in a high-energy physics lab. I was 18 years old and doing real physics. It was as good an experience as you can get: studying academically while doing what real physicists do. When I was a junior, the group—Dick Edelstein, Jim Russ and Dan Green—was approved for an experiment at Fermilab outside of Chicago. Ultimately that was the experiment on which I did my Ph.D. work. I actually lived at Fermilab for a couple of years while we finished the data taking and analysis.

When you were finishing your Ph.D., what did you envision as a career?

If you’d asked me in graduate school where I’d be in 10, 15, 20 years, I’d have said in an office in a building like Science Hall, as Wean Hall was known then. And if that’s how my career had turned out, I would have loved every minute of it. I like science at its most basic level and I like complex things. I was just lucky enough to find a different way to pursue that.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in industry instead of one in academia?

I was convinced that I would pursue an academic career. But for reasons that seem vague now, I decided to explore industrial research for a while, fully expecting that I would do that for about a year and come back. I went to 3M as a research physicist, and rapidly became involved in medical diagnostic imaging. It was a lot of cross-disciplinary science that was very similar to the kinds of collaborations I had at CMU and Fermilab. It was an exciting environment with a lot of good, cutting-edge science—all aimed at delivering products important to people’s health.

When did you make the transition from doing science to general business management?

At 3M, I did bench research for about five years. But somewhere in the middle of that I began doing both research and research management. And over the course of 10 or 12 years, I transitioned to research leadership. I was at 3M for about 15 years, and by the end of that I had responsibility for a large global research operation. Finally I ended up running the health imaging business, which had been acquired by Kodak. That’s when I made the complete transition away from technical work to overall general business management.

What brought you to United Technologies Corporation?

One of the reasons I came to United Technologies was because this is a broad and deep science and engineering company. We do things based on fundamental science. We look at hard problems like cutting-edge aerospace engines or building energy efficiency or resource consumption. We say, if it’s amenable to solution by physics and chemistry and science, then we can handle it. It’s a brave company without being arrogant, and it has the resources and willingness to confront the largest global challenges.I was also keenly interested in UTC’s capabilities and commitments in alternate energy, energy efficiency and climate impact reduction. Today every technology and product investment we make is somehow related to resource and energy utilization. It’s one of the world’s most important missions, something we cannot leave for future generations.

What are some specific examples?

We do a lot with geothermal energy and solar power and fuel cells. Those are all extraordinarily important. But just as important is what we can do with energy efficiency. For example, we have a very large commercial buildings-related business. We do elevators, heating and air conditioning, and environmental controls. One of our companies is Otis, and we are pioneering the technology of regenerative elevators. When an elevator uses energy to go up the elevator shaft and comes down with an unbalanced load, we recapture that energy and store it in a battery for later use. The result is a regenerative elevator that uses only about 25% of the energy that a normal elevator does.

Let me give you another good example. UTC has been the premiere fuel cell company for a very long time. We manufacture fuel cells that take natural gas and create electricity, and this is about a 40 percent efficient operation. That process also generates heat. So we’ve engineered our stationary fuel cells to capture waste heat that would normally go out into the atmosphere and use it to generate steam or hot water for building use. That waste heat also can be used to generate cold air through a device called an absorption chiller. So if you use the waste heat, that 40 percent efficient fuel cell can become a 90 percent efficient system when deployed to a real-world application. That’s about as basic as the physics/energy balance question gets.

How do you think your Carnegie Mellon education prepared you for what you are doing at UTC?

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have gotten my hands dirty very early on. I can’t tell you how important that was in developing as a person and as a physicist. The other strong attribute of Carnegie Mellon is that it gives you a very deep physics curriculum and an awareness of how that integrates into a broader world. Everything I do at UTC, everything I did at 3M and Kodak before that, requires me to understand problems and challenges from a broad perspective.

Do you have any advice for MCS students who want to address problems and challenges related to energy efficiency and sustainability?

Everyone has an obligation to understand what the issues really are, and to understand what you individually can do about them—the personal choices you make every day, the transportation you use, and the way you use resources and products and the environment. You have to do your part first. Then you earn the right to help other people solve their problems. You need to rely on what you learned for the past four or six or eight years. Don’t be afraid to apply your particular expertise and discipline to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.