McCormick alumnus explores electric car technology, space research during talk


Grace Luxton/The Daily Northwestern

Charles Kuehmann (McCormick ‘94) speaks at Ryan Family Auditorium in the Technological Institute Thursday. He is the vice president of materials engineering at SpaceX and Tesla.

Annabelle Zhang, Reporter

SpaceX and Tesla executive Charles Kuehmann (McCormick ‘94) spoke to faculty and students Thursday about innovations in technology, such as electric cars and space exploration.

Kuehmann is the vice president of materials engineering for SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport service, and Tesla, a producer of electric vehicles.

Addressing roughly 400 people in Ryan Family Auditorium on Thursday, Kuehmann discussed his career and his ideas about how the world’s energy sustainability issues can be solved with materials engineering.

Kuehmann told The Daily he started studying aerospace engineering as an undergraduate because he was “enamored” with the U.S. space program and wanted to be an astronaut as a kid. But he moved on to materials engineering when he realized materials were the root cause of many challenges in aerospace design.

“Materials (engineering) is a very interesting idea that started 300,000 years ago,” Kuehmann said. “Most of our technological development was based on our ability to discover and utilize these materials.”

Since then, Kuehmann has founded three businesses including a new material designs firm, QuesTek. He also led a product design team at Apple.

Kuehmann’s talk was part of the Material Sciences and Engineering Prominent Alumni Series.

“We invited Dr. Kuehmann here because he is an expert in his field, and students can learn from his experience,” said Qingyuan Lin, a Ph.D. candidate for materials engineering in McCormick and event’s organizer. “I’m really happy with the turnout, and I think the event achieved its purpose.”

Divya Jain, a McCormick Ph.D. candidate for materials engineering, attended the talk to find out more about what is required of a material engineer and what lies ahead in the field.

“I very much look up to (Kuehmann) and what he has achieved,” Jain said.

During the talk, Kuehmann said at the speed technology is developing, everyone in the audience would be able to go on Mars in their lifetime. SpaceX is currently researching how to cultivate Martian soil to ensure survival of life on the planet, Kuehmann said.

“We’ll really see things start to change quickly,” he said. “It’s going to change quicker than people think.”

He urged the audience to work hard on their passions at NU.

“Don’t be satisfied with doing just what is expected,” Kuehmann said. “Always take one step farther. Figure out how to do something that no one else has done.”

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Twitter: @AnnabelleZhang2