Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, Ph.D.

Activate Fellow '23 & Schmidt Science Fellow '22 

Forbes 30 Under 30 - North America 

      Activate | SSF | Forbes | MIT MCSC | Lindau Nobel Meetings  | ORCID | UNEP | UNICEF | WEF

Selected Highlights

03/25/2024: Article on "a fibrous membrane air filter" published by Device (Cell Press)!

03/06/2024: Article on "mobile direct air capture" published by Matter (Cell Press)!

01/03/2024: Article on climate education published by Matter (Cell Press)!

07/27/2023: Article on how my personal journey impacted my professional life published by Science!

06/08/2023: Selected into the Activate Fellows Program!

01/13/2023: Article on normalizing failure published by Nature Reviews Chemistry!

06/09/2022: Honored to be selected as one of the Schmidt Science Fellows

04/27/2022: Article on mental health challenges in graduate school published by Nature Reviews Materials!

03/10/2022: Work on malaria and typhoid differential diagnosis featured as a Science Highlight by NIBIB!

11/01/2021: Glad to see my SDG Blog "Impacting climate as a young innovator" published by UN DESA!


Academic Curriculum Vitae | Business Résumé | LinkedIn

I am a lifelong Senior Schmidt Science Fellow (2022 cohort, 1 of 29 globally) selected by Schmidt Futures, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, pursuing my independent research vision on integrated carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and conversion at the nexus of technology, business, and policy at MIT. I am also an Activate Fellow (2023 cohort, 1 of 46 nationally) to upscale direct air capture (DAC) and downstream utilization, recently winning an advanced market agreement (AMC) from Frontier Climate, and the MIT Climate & Energy Prize, among others.

In 2021-2022, I served as an Inaugural Impact Fellow (2021 cohort, 1 of 8 globally) at the MIT Climate & Sustainability Consortium, transcending academia and industry by working with Fortune 500 companies on climate-related challenges. Prior to joining MIT, I received my MS and Ph.D. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University in 2019 and 2021, respectively. I received my MEng (thesis) degree in Materials Engineering from McGill University in 2016. In 2013, I received my dual bachelor's degrees (BEng in Renewable Energy, BA in English Literature) from the ‘Hsue-shen Tsien’ Elite Class (Top 1%) of Xi'an Jiaotong University.

As a researcher from a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) background, I founded the "Light of Ithaca" initiative to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in chemical sciences and beyond, during my Ph.D. study (2016-2021) at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. I am participating in the MIT IMPACT Fellow Program (2023), received training in teaching from the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program at MIT (2021), was selected to participate in the NextGen Professors Program for academic career development at Cornell (2019-2020), and mentored an undergraduate team that won the Bill Nye '77 Award in Undergrad Research (2019). 

Below are some snapshots of my background.

Social Impact: I 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). I was named a Future Energy Leader (FEL-100) by the World Energy Council (2021), received the 13th “Top Ten Outstanding Chinese American Youth Award” (2020), and received United States Congressional recognition as a Top 10 Outstanding Chinese American Youth (2020).

Entrepreneurship: As an Activave Fellow, I recently co-founded Arbon with the goal of mitigating global climate change via direct air capture and solar-driven downstream utilization. For my effort in founding C2X to mitigate global climate change while achieving environmental justice, I was named the Youth Innovation Challenge US Winner by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (2021), received an invitation from Administrator Michael S. Regan to visit the EPA headquarters (2021), and was featured in an SDG Blog "Impacting climate as a young innovator" by UN DESA (2021). I was a Marla and Barry ILR ’90 Beck Entrepreneurship Fellow (2021), co-founded the Chinese Entrepreneur Association at Cornell, received a $5,000 Blackstone Launchpad & Techstars Fellowship (2020), and led a team that won the $20K Grand Prize (1/1,150+ globally) in the “Create the Future” Design Contest (2017). 

Outreach for UN Organizations: As a Technical Working Group Member on Energy Transition, I co-authored a roadmap on global energy transition for the UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy. I also contributed to UN DESA's Global Policy Dialogue Series on "Imagining the Carbon-neutral Future: Transformations in Energy and Transport." I was a Young Changemaker on Sustainable WASH Solutions (1 of 8 globally) by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) (2020), a Young Champions of the Earth Competition finalist (5 in North America) by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2020, 2019), and a Local Pathways Fellow (LPF) (2018-2019) & LPF mentor (2021) by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth (SDSN Youth).

Summary of my Ph.D. Research: During my Ph.D. study in the Erickson Lab at Cornell, my major was Micro & Nanoscale Engineering, with minors in Energy & Sustainability, Materials Engineering, and Infection & Immunity. My Ph.D. thesis focused on optofluidics and its applications in global sustainability and global health: 1) scalable CO2 to fuel conversion (Ref: CTF Grand Prize Winning Entry 2017, TTI/Vanguard Talk 2019, WLF Talk 2020, Cornell 3MT 2021). 2) biosensors for point-of-care diagnostics (Ref: EBioMedicine article 2022, Anal. Chem. article 2021, TCAM Talk 2018, Cornell 3MT 2017).

Translational Impact of my Research: My thesis research on CO2 to fuel conversion was featured in the World Economic Forum's white paper as an energy innovation breakthrough of the past decade (2020). The industrial partner in this effort, Dimensional Energy, was a finalist for the Best CO2 Utilisation Award (2021), and a finalist (1 of 10 teams globally) for the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE (2016-2021), a global competition to develop breakthrough technologies for CO2 conversion. For my effort in leading this research, I was named a German Chancellor Fellow by the Humboldt Foundation (2021), a Young Scientist to present my research and mingle with Nobel Laureates at the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (2021), a Young Investigator to attend the World Laureates Forum in Shanghai, China (2020), and a winner of the MKS Instruments Research Excellence Award at Photonics West in San Francisco, CA (2020). I received an Honorable Mention for the Link Foundation Energy Fellowship by the Link Foundation (2020, 2019), was a national finalist in the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize by the Lemelson Foundation (2019), and was the co-PI for a $20K Scale-Up and Prototyping Award (2017) at Cornell Engineering.

My project on applying optofluidics in point-of-care diagnostics was recently featured as a science highlight by NIBIB (2022). My pitch on FeverPhone won the First Place Award in the 9th Annual 50-Second Sustainability Project Pitch and Poster Competition by the Atkinson Center (2018). I received the National Third Place Prize (2018) in research presentation by the AAAS, the National Graduate Division Winner Award (2017) by Sigma Xi, and won two Best Poster Awards in the US (2017) and abroad (2017). 

Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): I founded the "Light of Ithaca" initiative and actively promoted DEI through my writing, speaking, and service, especially in the following areas: calling for mental health awareness of graduate students, promoting the success of and providing mentorship for FGLI high-school and undergraduate students. In 2022, I co-authored "Navigating Mental Health Challenges in Graduate School" on Nature Reviews Materials. In 2021, I published an article "Navigating my way as a first-generation student" on Matter (Cell Press), a blog on Lindau Nobel Meetings, and a cover art and editorial on Analytical Chemistry in its Diversity and Inclusion Cover Art Series. Besides, I served as a mentor to three FGLI students in the US in the inaugural Forbes Under 30 Mentorship program by Forbes and Close the Gap Foundation, and as an ambassador for "Tomorrow iCAN" to support 630 FGLI students from 23 high schools in China. In 2020, I sat down with James Chau, UN goodwill ambassador, to talk about my experience growing up in a small village in China before pursuing a Ph.D. degree at an Ivy League University in the US, during my visit to the One Young World Summit in London as a Future Energy Leader featured by BP plc. The story "My Journey from Poverty to College" was later included as part of the China Current. For my scholarly work and commitment to promoting the success of FGLI students, I was selected as one of the five Cornellians into the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society (2022).

For more information about my journey from rural China to Forbes 30 Under 30, click on “interview.