Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao

Ph.D. @Cornell, Forbes 30U30

Forbes | UNEP | INK | BP | OYW | LinkedIn | Twitter | Google Scholar | ORCiD | Publons


06/02/2020: Selected as a Young Changemaker on Sustainable WASH Solutions by the United Nations Children's Fund!

05/27/2020: Highlighted in the World Economic Forum's white paper for global energy innovations.

03/02/2020: Selected to attend the 70th Lindau Nobel Meeting!

10/23/2019: Named a Future Energy Leader by BP plc.

10/15/2019: Selected as an INK Fellow (21 in the world).

05/16/2019: Named as one of the five "Young Champions of the Earth" Finalists in North America by the United Nations Environment Programme!

04/01/2019: Featured in EarthX 30 Under 30: The Green Generation.

03/18/2019: Named as AACYF 30 Under 30 – Class of 2019.

11/13/2018: Landed on Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy – Class of 2019.

10/06/2017: Received the $20K Grand Prize (1/1,150+) in the "Create the Future" Design Contest.


I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. My major is Micro & Nanoscale Engineering, with minors in Energy & Sustainability, Infection & Immunity, and Entrepreneurship. My research is centered around scalable photoreactor design for converting CO2 to solar commodities.

Below are some snapshots for my background.

Recognitions by the United Nations: I was selected into the Young Changemaker on Sustainable WASH Solutions (8 in the world) Programme by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) (2020), was twice named as a regional finalist (5 in North America) in the Young Champions of the Earth Competition by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2019, 2020), and was appointed as a Local Pathways Fellow by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth Initiative (SDSN Youth) (2018-2019).

Top 10 List & Three 30 Under 30 Lists: I received the 13th “Top Ten Outstanding Chinese American Youth Award” (2020), and landed on three 30 Under 30 Lists: the “30 Under 30” list in Energy by Forbes Magazine (2019), the “EarthX 30 Under 30: The Green Generation” list by the American Conservation Coalition (2019), and the “AACYF Top 30 Under 30 Elites” list in “Art, Culture, Science” by All America Chinese Youth Federation (2019).

Academic Activities: My Ph.D. research at Cornell on solar fuels was featured in the World Economic Forum's white paper as an energy innovation breakthrough of the past decade (2020). I was named a Young Scientist to attend the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (2021 in Lindau, Germany, 2020 on-line), a Young Investigator to attend the World Laureates Forum in Shanghai, China (2020), and a Student Energy Leader to attend the 10th ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Denver, CO (2019). I received the MKS Instruments Research Excellence Award at Photonics West in San Francisco, CA (2020).

I was named one of the six national finalists in the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize by the Lemelson Foundation (2019), and received Honorable Mention twice for the Link Foundation Energy Fellowship by the Link Foundation (2019, 2020). I received the National Third Place Prize (2018) in Presentation by the AAAS, the National Graduate Division Winner Award (2017) by Sigma Xi, and won two Best Poster Awards both in the US (2017) and abroad (2017).

I was selected into the NextGen Professors Program (2019-2020), mentored an undergrad team that won the Bill Nye '77 Award in Undergrad Research (2019), and was the PI for the $20K Scale Up and Prototyping Awards (2017) at Cornell.

I have recently published work in iScience, Int. J. Hydrog. Energy, Anal. Chem., Fuel, Fuel Process. Technol., ISIJ Int., Malaria Journal, and Metall Mater Trans B, and am a referee for several journals, including J. Clean. Prod., Energy Convers. Manag, Renew. Energy, Int. J. Hydrog. Energy, IJEE, Metall Mater Trans B, Eng. Rep., etc.

Social Impact: I was featured as a Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Commitment-Maker by the Clinton Foundation (2020), and was featured as a Future Energy Leader (11 in the world) tackling the need for cleaner energy by BP plc (2019). I was invited to attend the 50th St. Gallen Symposium in St. Gallen, Switzerland (2021), was named a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum (2019), and a BP Advancing Energy Scholar to attend the OYW Summit in London, UK (2019).

WBA Talks: During the COVID-19 pandemic, I co-founded the World Beyond Academia (WBA) Talk Series with my Ph.D. colleagues at McGill (Dr. Zhen Yin), Cambridge (Dr. Bihe Chen), and Harvard (Chonghe Wang), aiming at bridging the information gap for current Ph.D. students and recent Ph.D. graduates who are considering non-academia career choices .

Public Speaking: I am featured by SPARK - Energy Re-Imagined to speak at the Carbon Capture Stream in London, UK (2021), and am invited by the former President of France, Mr. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and Mr. Michelangelo Baracchi Bonvicini, Honorary President and President of Atomium-EISMD, to speak about the innovation potential of the energy sector in the post-pandemic world at the Post-COVID summit (2020).

I was an invited speaker at IoT, Data, and the New Last Mile by TTI/Vanguard in Berkeley, CA (2019), was selected to present at Global Grad Show, an exhibition of creativity and social innovation of the Dubai Design Week (2019), and was selected as an INK Fellow to speak about solar fuels in Jaisalmer, India (2019), along with George A. Papandreou, a former Prime Minister of Greece. I received the First Place Award by the Atkinson Center (2018), the "Drafting the Future" Award by Cornell MAE (2018), the People’s Choice Award by Cornell Grad School (2017), and was invited to speak at Ithaca’s March for Science Event (2017).

Entrepreneurship: I am pursuing an entrepreneurship minor during my Ph.D. study, and am the current vice president of the Chinese Entrepreneur Association at Cornell. For the HI-Light project, I was participating in a team that won the $20K Grand Prize (1/1,150+ in the world) in the “Create the Future” Design Contest (2017). The industrial partner in the HI-Light effort has advanced into the final round (10 teams in the world) for the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE (2019), a global competition to develop breakthrough technologies for CO2 conversion.

Prior Degrees: M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell (2019), M.Eng. (thesis) in Materials Engineering from McGill (2016) with joint training by the Nuclear Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2015-2016), a dual bachelor’s degree (B.Eng. in Energy & Power Engineering; B.A. in English Language & Literature) from the ‘Tsien Hsue-Shen’ Elite Class of Xi’an Jiaotong University (2013).

For more information about me and my research, click on “Publications” and “A summary of media and awards”.

Curriculum Vitae: Long; Short (updated September 2020).