An Interview with Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, Forbes (US & Canada 2019) Energy

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski
May 31 · 11 min read

(#00024) — Life is full of surprises and the possibilities are endless.

Elvis Cao speaks at IoT, Data, and the New Last Mile, Berkeley, CA

We all live in this world, young or old, poor or rich. It’s our only habitable planet, and it’s ours to keep.

Over the years people have lost a sense of what is good and what is bad for us and the Earth. We pollute it and exhaust all resources for our own benefit.

Even though we can’t really see it or feel it, our actions have taken their toll and sooner or later we are going to feel the consequences.

Saving our planet depends on every single one of us. But it also depends on the minds of the scientists and environmentalists that do everything in their power to prevent these consequences and save the world.

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao is a young man with a splendid list of accomplishments behind him. He is a Ph.D. student in the Erickson Lab at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell in Ithaca, NY, and a project leader at HI-Light, which is a glass waveguide based photoreactor technology for converting CO2 to fuels. His research also extends to the FeverPhone, among other things.

Elvis Cao has been honored with many rewards in his life, and recently found a place on the Forbes’s “30 under 30 US & Canada 2019: Energy” list.

Without going in too many details, I warmly recommend everyone to read the interview I’ve done with this young and inspiring man.


Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Hi Elvis, and welcome to this interview! First, I would like to thank you for taking the time to be a part of this mission. Can you please introduce yourself? Who is Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao? How did you choose the industry field you are currently in?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

As a first-generation student born in a small village in China, I haven’t had a lot of guidance from my family about what to pursue, but I understand they are very big supporters for me.

My grandmother, Shouzhen Wang, always believed that the pursuit of education was the only way to change her eldest grandson’s fate and knowledge was always of utmost importance in her mindset, even though she only received five years’ primary school education and neither of my parents ever graduated from high school.

Because of her, I never stopped my pursuit of higher education.

Inspired by my grandmother and through self-discipline, I ranked first out of more than 160,000 students in the high school entrance exam in Xuzhou, China in 2006, and graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree from the “Tsien Huse-Shen” Elite Class in Xi’an Jiaotong University in China (B.Eng. in Energy & Power Engineering and B.A. in English Language & Literature, 2013), followed by a fully funded Master’s study at McGill (M.Eng. in Materials Engineering, 2016), with joint training at MIT (Visting Student in Nuclear Engineering, 2015–2016), before joining the Ph.D. program in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell in 2016.

Elvis Cao at the age of 10

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.

I thought if this problem could be solved, it would be tremendous. People need oxygen to survive, and hydrogen can be used as fuel.

Imagine being able to use the sun to get fuel from water, which is everywhere on the planet. That idea was the spark.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Additionally, I would also like to congratulate you on being among Forbes 30 under 30! Was this a dream come true? What do you think most contributed to this?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

It is indeed a great experience to be featured by Forbes ‘s 30 Under 30 list, but ultimately it is what you do that really matters.

I think the reason I could get in is due to the big vision behind our project, how to utilize the renewable energy input by the sun to convert carbon dioxide — the waste product from power plants and industrial facilities that is largely responsible for global warming — into a valuable resource.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Now, I would like to talk more about your work. As a Ph.D. student at the Cornell University and a HI-Light Project leader, what would you say are the best and worst parts of being young and successful?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

I think I am far from being successful; I am always on the road. The best part of my life right now is that I am working on something that I have always been interested in since childhood.

Meanwhile, being featured by Forbes gives me the potential possibility to speak out to a broader audience.

Elvis Cao in Montréal Insectarium, Montréal, QC, Canada

The worst part of my life right now is that I keep getting myself busier every day by setting up far too many deadlines for myself. Those too many deadlines make me sometimes get lost and forget about my priorities.

I still need to learn time management and have a better work-life balance.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

I have been wanting to interview someone about climate change for the longest time, and I think I finally found the right person. I applaud you for slowly changing the world, and think what you do is beyond amazing. So, can you tell us more about how exactly do you fight climate change? How serious is climate change becoming? How can we all help?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

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

We as human beings can all start to help reduce carbon emissions by adopting greener lifestyles in our daily lives and that indeed helps. But it is important for the public to realize that even if we slow carbon dioxide emissions, the warming effect of the existing greenhouse gas can persist for thousands of years.

To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the end of this century. Essentially, the intergovernmental collaboration efforts such as the Paris Agreement are needed to help solve this problem from a global perspective.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Being in such a complex field, how tough it is to be focused and creative all the time? What is your secret to being so persistent and successful at your researches?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

Elvis Cao in Central Park, New York City, NY

We have to realize one’s knowledge is limited so it’s important to collaborate with other people whose expertise differs from ours.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity of working with supportive mentors and talented collaborators.

That really means a lot to me and that is indeed my secret to what I have achieved so far.

Especially, I would like to express my thanks to these mentors here at Cornell: Prof. David Erickson, my Ph.D. advisor, who is always there to support me; Prof. Tobias Hanrath, my Ph.D. committee member and an expert in nanomaterials; Prof. Saurabh Mehta, my Ph.D. committee member and a talented researcher in global health, epidemiology, and nutrition; Prof. Christopher Hernandez, the Director of Graduate Studies of my department, who is willing to send numerous reference letters for me.

I would also like to give kudos to my group members of the Erickson lab at Cornell who are involved in this project: M.S. researcher Yuval Kaminer, and undergraduate researchers Tao Hong and Tingwei Liu.

It has been a great pleasure working with them in the same team. Without their help and support, it is almost impossible to have pushed this project thus far only by myself.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Besides being among the Forbes 30 under 30, what was your “I made it” moment? How would you describe success?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

In addition to the Forbes recognition, I was also selected as a local pathways fellow by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network — Youth Initiative (2018), was among “EarthX 30 Under 30: The Green Generation” by the American Conservation Coalition (2019), and the “AACYF Top 30 Under 30 Elites” in “Art, Culture, Science” by All America Chinese Youth Federation (2019).

I am currently one of the five regional finalists for North America in the Young Champions of the Earth Competition by UN Environment (2019), and a national finalist in Lemelson-MIT Student Prize by the Lemelson Foundation (2019).

I would define success as a process of getting better than the person that I was yesterday, through self-reflection and self-discipline. Being able to live each day as if it was your last will certainly help.

I have always been a big fan for Steve Jobs and I would like to quote the words from his famous commencement address at Stanford: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

What are the top three skills you believe all people who want to achieve their goals should possess? Please explain.

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

Self-reflection: this is a crucial skill to help people know the necessary steps needed to take in order to achieve their goals, by asking themselves the important questions.

Time management: we might get lost and forget about our priorities in life from time to time. Better managing our time is an essential skill.

Work-life balance: I am still on the way to find a better balance between my work and life.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Who is Elvis Cao when he is not working? What do you enjoy doing? Who is your biggest supporter? What is your definition of happiness?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

I believe in the power of science communication to stimulate the interest in science for the youth.

When I am not in the lab, I enjoy being involved in science communication. In addition to winning the National Third Place Prize in “Science in a minute” Video Contest organized by AAAS in February 2018, I also participated in Ithaca’s “March for Science” event on Earth Day, and delivered a talk on FeverPhone to approximately 1,000 people rallied together on The Commons, the downtown area of Ithaca, and the “SPARK” Talks at Cornell University — a series of five-minute lightning talks in 2017.

Elvis Cao speaks at Ithaca’s March for Science Event, Ithaca, NY

In October 2018, I won the First place in the Atkinson Center’s 2018 TCAM Pitch Poster competition.

I like visiting art museums. For example, visiting The Character of Characters: an animation by Xu Bing at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell was a great experience for me.

I could feel the curiosity behind the artist’s views and I believe curiosity is the inspiration for scientific discoveries as well.

This is something in common between art and science.

Besides that, I also enjoy spending the whole afternoon’s time on Mount Royal or the Insectarium during my Master’s study in Montréal.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Where do you see yourself and your work 10 years from now? Are there any milestones you want to reach by then?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

Elvis Cao in Ghibli Museum, Tokyo, Japan

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 with 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.

I hope in ten years, I have already been granted tenure in a research insensitive university, and I am also able to provide advice and help to more students, especially those from an underrepresented background.

Bruno (HE) Mirchevski (The Logician):

Lastly, what do you want everyone to take from this interview? What is the best life advice you can give?

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao:

As a first-generation college student who grew up in a small village in China, it was almost an impossible dream for me to ever think about pursuing my Ph.D. at Cornell and being able to make it to the Forbes list.

I would like to remind both myself and the audience that life is full of surprises and the possibilities are endless.

We all have our own unique story to tell, as we all come from different backgrounds. But the moral of the story is that with the right determination, nothing is impossible.

Learn a thing or two from Elvis Cao, and if you want to change the world, change your habits first. This young man’s line of work is going to revolutionize the world one day, but he still needs our help to do that.

We live in a time when the planet needs our compassion and it’s time to be more responsible for our deeds.

Start with yourself and you will see a real impact one day!

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Bruno (HE) Mirchevski

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The Logician (Dreamer) 👁️ Don’t follow me. I am lost too!😎 Founder of HE Group - (Investor) 📈

The Logician

Don’t follow me. I am lost too!😎

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