One Young World Profile profiles

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao

Cornell University, McGill University
Circular Economy
Climate Change

I am passionate about

I am most interested in how to efficiently convert waste CO2 emission into renewable energy sources.

The extraction and consumption of fossil carbon to run our daily lives account for over 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions each year driving climate change. According to the most recent data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is over 415 parts per million (ppm), and this sets an eight hundred thousand year record in human history. Meanwhile, the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

As engineers, we seek to ‘improve things through the use of technology’ and this is a critical challenge and our collective obligation to future generations to do something about this. It is important to recognize that the status quo is unlikely to change unless someone is going to make money of it, and this is a key component of our vision, can we use CO2 as a feedstock, as an opportunity, rather than a liability. Creating high-value products from CO2 by using energy from all parts of the solar spectrum to photocatalytically produce sustainable fuels will make CO2 capture and conversion economical. We expect that advances from our HI-Light project will contribute significantly to the reduction of energy-related emissions, and have a positive impact on energy storage.


At Cornell, I lead the HI-Light project (https://www.forbes.com/profile/xiangkun-elvis-cao/), a solar-thermal chemical reactor technology for converting CO2 to fuels like syngas or methanol. The technology seeks to achieve a kind of artificial photosynthesis inside a factory or a power plant – combining sunlight, CO2 and chemicals to photocatalytically produce renewable fuels. The unique feature of HI-Light is the concurrent optimization of heat, light and reactant delivery, thereby making use of the energy from the full solar spectrum to drive CO2 conversion. In time this technique could make CO2 capture and conversion economical.

(1) Community level: In 2018, I was named a local pathways fellow by SDSN Youth (http://localpathways.org/2018-fellows/), the global youth initiative of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Over a 12-month period, fellows will explore the practical steps and strategies to solve a local problem. I hope to apply my work with HI-Light to contribute to the Tompkins County Energy Roadmap, which sets a strategic goal of 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from 2008 levels by 2050.

(2) Country level: Our team have signed a co-development plan with Shell through the GameChanger program for developing the upscaled HI-Light reactor platform. Meanwhile, we have received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer Program.

(3) International level: The HI-Light team won the $20K International Grand Prize in the “Create the Future” Design Contest (2017). The industrial partner in the HI-Light effort, Dimensional Energy, has advanced into the final round for the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE (2019), competing as one of 10 finalist teams in a global competition to develop breakthrough technologies that will convert carbon dioxide emissions into useful products, like building materials, alternative fuels, and other items that people use every day. The team will be heading to Wyoming in June and installing upscaled HI-Light reactors for carbon dioxide conversion.