30 Under 30 Highlight: Xiangkun “Elvis” Cao

This blog is an entry in ACC’s series to highlight the winners of our inaugural 30 Under 30: The Green Generation awards.  Learn more about 30 Under 30 here, or view a comprehensive list of profiles as they are released through this link.

Each generation has one overriding responsibility: to safeguard the legacy it has received from previous generations and hand it— enriched—to the next one. For Xiangkun “Elvis” Cao, this responsibility has taken a personal meaning. As a first-generation college student from China, Mr. Cao knows well of the responsibility he has to hold, for none of the academic and professional accolades he has received throughout his life would have been possible if not for the sacrifices made and chances given by people in the generation that preceded his own. 

As a Ph.D student at Cornell University, Mr. Cao has excelled in his academic and scientific pursuits — majoring in Micro and Nanoscale Engineering, with minors in Energy and Sustainability, Infection and Immunity, and Entrepreneurship. Prior to enrolling in Cornell, Mr. Cao attained dual bachelor degrees in Energy and Power Engineering and English Literature from Xi’an Jiaotong University in Xi’an, China, and a Masters degree in Materials Engineering from McGill University in Montreal, QC, Canada. 

In years past, Mr. Cao has been honored to receive special recognitions and awards from institutions of academic, economic, and cultural significance. From honorary recognitions by Forbes, to fellowship sponsorships by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, to being named a “Top 30 Under 30 Elites” in “Art, Culture, Science” by the All America Chinese Youth Federation, to most recently receiving recognition for his work in scientific and environmental research by the American Conservation Coalition at the recent EarthX Summit, where he was selected as an “EarthX 30 Under 30: The Green Generation” honoree…Mr. Cao is certainly leaving his mark in the STEM community, and is likely to continue his work in scientific, technological and mechanical engineering for years to come. 


His impressive pedigrees and talents come from his humble beginnings, and an understanding that anything is possible and made to be within reach if only you commit to education and doing what must be done in order to fulfill one’s own potential while living and breathing on earth. 

Born in a small village in rural China, Xiangkun lacked the resources and advantages many in the Western world have come to expect or take for granted. Where he lacked in resources, he overcame with passion, tenacity and sheer drive to make a positive difference in our world, not just for himself and for the family he loves, but for the benefit of all peoples, and future generations to come. 

Recently, I spoke with Mr. Cao to learn more about his passions, work, inspirations and life goals. Here are some of the questions I asked, and the fascinating responses I received from an individual I find to be a true exemplification of what I expect from an EarthX: 30 Under 30 honoree. 

Why do you work towards solutions in the environmental space? 

My academic interest for science, especially in the energy field, started from a middle school class when my chemistry teacher, Fenglan Wang, introduced to me that scientists were trying to convert water into oxygen and hydrogen with sunlight in 2005. I was impressed by this idea and fascinated by the renewable energy field ever since.

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. 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 the proposed project will contribute significantly to the reduction of energy-related emissions, and have a positive impact on energy storage.

How did you feel when you were honored with EarthX’s 30 Under 30 by the American Conservation Coalition?

Being honored with the 30 under 30 is a great thing, but ultimately it is what you do that really matters.

What is it that you aim to achieve with your work? 

We realize that even if people acknowledge global warming, unless someone stands to make money from carbon dioxide, it’s hard to get anyone to do anything about it. That's a key component of our rationale as well. What if we could reimagine waste CO2 as a resource, rather than a liability. 

Our team at Cornell have been developing a scalable photo-thermal chemical reactor technology to convert  CO2 into fuels like syngas or methanol, with sustainable energy input from the sun.

In addition to addressing climate change, I see another potential application for our reactor technology: getting people to Mars. On Mars there’s a lot of carbon dioxide, much more than on earth. Using carbon dioxide and water, we could produce methanol, a liquid fuel to power spacecraft, and oxygen for the first Martians some decades into the future. So I can see a lot of potential applications for this work beyond the industry.

What are you life goals? Passions? 

As a first-generation student, I recognize that not everyone has access to the same resources to pursue their goals. Now that I’ve studied at several of the finest universities in both Canada and the United States, I want to help other first-generation students understand how many opportunities are out there and how the world can be much larger than their imaginations. Looking back, it’s my family’s belief in higher education that motivates me along my pursuit of science. I would like to pass this belief on to a broader audience if I find a faculty position in the near future.

Learn more about ACC’s 30 Under 30 recipients here.

David Acosta