‘30 Under 30’ doctoral student fights climate change by converting carbon dioxide into clean fuel
In a chemistry class in a small-town middle school in Jiangsu Province, China, Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao learned that scientists were attempting to use sunlight to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. The revelation launched him on a career path with an equally bright future.
“I thought if this problem could be solved, it would be tremendous,” said Cao, a third-year doctoral student who is majoring in mechanical engineering and working in professor David Erickson’s lab. “People need oxygen to survive, and hydrogen can be used as a fuel. Imagine being able to use the sun to get fuel from water, which is everywhere on the planet. That idea was the spark.”
Cao went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees from Xi’an Jiaotong University in China — one in engineering with a focus on new energy, and one in English literature — and a master’s degree in materials engineering from McGill University with joint training in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, the 27-year-old engineer has been honored on the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list, in the energy category, for his work on a project that converts carbon dioxide — the waste product from power plants and industrial facilities that is largely responsible for global warming — into a valuable resource.
“It’s truly meaningful to apply what I’m doing in the lab to make some difference in the real world, and that’s my career goal as well,” Cao said. “Being honored on the Forbes list is a nice start to that.”
Initially funded by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s Academic Venture Fund, the HI-Light project is a collaboration with Erickson, the Sibley College Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Tobias Hanrath, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and private company Dimensional Energy. Both Erickson and Hanrath are fellows at the Atkinson Center, as well as shareholders in Dimensional Energy.
“Cao is a fantastic engineer,” Erickson said. “He excels at turning small-scale, demonstrative laboratory experiments into practical designs to be implemented at larger, industrial scales. And he’s also very effective at seeing and communicating the big vision behind what he’s trying to do in the lab.”
By creating more sustainable fuels while taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the HI-Light project creates an additional incentive for confronting climate change.
“It’s truly meaningful to apply what I’m doing in the lab to make some difference in the real world, and that’s my career goal as well.” — Ph.D. student Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao
“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,” Cao said. “Our method, which is one approach of several out there, creates clean, valuable energy.”
Cao and his team have been developing a photo-thermal chemical reactor to convert energy from the sun into fuels.
“Think of the reactor as a black box,” he said. “You have an inlet and an outlet. We put in carbon dioxide along with other things for it to react with, and then we collect fuels.”
In addition to addressing climate change, Cao sees another potential application for his 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 spacecrafts, and oxygen for the first Martians some decades into the future. So I can see a lot of potential applications for this work beyond industry.”
Thanks to Cao and his team’s success with the HI-Light project, they have received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer Program. Dimensional Energy, the commercial partner in the HI-Light effort, has advanced into the final round for the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, 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.
Cao’s recent accomplishments do not stop there. In 2018, he was named a local pathways fellow by SDSN Youth, 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. Cao hopes to apply his 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.
“…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.” — Ph.D. student Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao
In addition to his HI-Light project, Cao is also working under the guidance of Erickson and Saurabh Mehta, associate professor of global health, epidemiology, and nutrition, to develop FeverPhone, a system that uses smartphone-based diagnostics to accurately, efficiently, and affordably diagnose six common causes of acute fever, namely Dengue, Malaria, Chikungunya, Leptospirosis, Typhoid, and Chagas.
In November, Cao’s presentation about FeverPhone took first place in the Atkinson Center’s 2018 TCAM Pitch Poster competition.
As a first-generation student, Cao recognizes that not everyone has access to the same resources to pursue their goals. So he has been volunteering his time to manage his undergraduate alma mater’s website for overseas education, as well as managing their WeChat platform.
“I was lucky. Neither my grandparents nor my parents went to college, so I haven’t had a lot of guidance from them about what to pursue, but I understand they are very big supporters,” Cao said. “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.”
Jennifer Savran Kelly is a freelance writer for Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.