Xiangkun Elvis Cao

United States of America

Regional Finalist, North America

Converting harmful emissions into commodities

Summary of Big Idea

The extraction and consumption of fossil carbon to run our daily lives accounts for over 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, driving climate change. By not viewing fossil fuels and feedstocks through a “circular economy” lens, companies “throw away” approximately US$50 billion each year in potential profit from what could be made with waste carbon dioxide such as methanol. HI-Light is a solar-thermal chemical reactor technology for converting carbon dioxide into fuels like syngas or methanol. The technology seeks to achieve a kind of artificial photosynthesis inside a factory or a power plant – combining sunlight, carbon dioxide and chemicals to photo-catalytically produce renewable fuel. Our technique makes carbon dioxide capture and conversion more economical. The current conversion of carbon dioxide into useful chemicals by weight is a very small percent of the close to two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants in the United States alone. HI-Light’s “reverse combustion” technology converts carbon dioxide into high-value hydrocarbons, increasing its value as a commodity. The unique design feature of our reactor is the optimized light delivery coupled with opto-thermal heating to reach elevated temperatures where reaction rates are higher.


I am a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, and was selected as a Local Pathways Fellow by SDSN Youth. I was among the “30 Under 30” in Energy by Forbes Magazine, and “EarthX 30 Under 30” by the American Conservation Coalition. I was also listed as a national finalist in Lemelson-MIT Student Prize by the Lemelson Foundation. I have a dual bachelor’s degree from Xi’an Jiaotong University and a Master’s degree from McGill University.

Xiangkun Elvis Cao's Bio

27 years
Doctoral student