Published 21 September 2023 by Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao
Addressing Climate Change at the Nexus of Technology, Business, and Policy
Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, Schmidt Science Fellow at MIT, Activate Fellow, and 2022 Lindau Alumnus, works in the field of carbon management as a component to address climate change. The basis for his career was laid by his grandmother, who regarded education as a top priority for his future. Learn more about his career trajectory and his vision to mitigate climate change.
Climate Change forces humanity to hurry to find solutions to make an impact at scale. We must actively pursue pathways to remove emissions while reducing new emissions. It is essential to reduce the carbon footprint of the current industries, but for some sectors, this process will take more time. The transportation sector (i.e., planes, trucks, cargo ships), for example, is responsible for 16% of global emissions, but is hard to decarbonise in a magnitude that really makes a difference, and removal technologies are essential.
Bringing Human Dimensions Into Technology
That’s why I turn to carbon management, with a focus on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and conversion. As an engineer by training, I am currently working on designing novel devices and processes for CDR and conversion applications. The scientific and business community in carbon management is working to rapidly upscale various technologies to a meaningful scale as a crucial part of reaching net zero goals. However, we must also incorporate the societal, economic, and environmental considerations that are equally, if not more important. Human civilisation has enormous power to develop and deploy technologies, which makes me think optimistically, but we may not forget the human dimensions that are less discussed in existing conversations. Communities are worried about climate change but also about the potential solutions that might have an adverse impact on their lives. For these reasons, it is essential to develop carbon management at the nexus of technology, business, and policy.
Bringing human dimensions into technology development and deployment prevents marginalised communities suffering the most from climate change from bearing the most consequences of measurements against it. The Schmidt Science Fellowship (SSF) allows me to work at the interface of engineering and social sciences, incorporating justice and equity considerations into designing various CDR and conversion technologies. For example, when designing sorbent materials for direct air capture applications, there is also potential for the co-treatment of other air pollutants (e.g., PM2.5, sulfur dioxide, and ozone), which already pose challenges to surrounding communities. I also understand the implications of policies on ordinary people’s lives and am passionate about bringing more science into sustainable policymaking. In 2021, I served as a UN Technical Working Group Member and co-authored a global energy transition roadmap. I also contributed to the Global Policy Dialogues by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). The UN DESA later featured me for my work “impacting climate as a young innovator.”
I also recognise that our climate crisis is a multidisciplinary challenge, but we as human beings create disciplinary boundaries, e.g., via splitting scientists into separated faculties. That’s why I advocate for scientific environments where people from different disciplines work together on a shared mission. The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Columbia Climate School are recent examples, but we need to do more. We should provide funding support, create incentives for hiring and promotion, and build communities for early-career researchers to pursue interdisciplinary research.
Turning Science Breakthroughs Into Businesses
The nexus of technology, business, and policy is a common thread in my CV. Having completed my PhD at Cornell University in 2021, I started at MIT, and in 2022, I had the chance to become a Schmidt Science Fellow to pursue my independent scientific vision. Parallel to my scientific research, I was also excited about turning science into business ideas while working on mitigating climate change. In 2023, I was selected into the Activate Fellows Program, which helps science entrepreneurs turn their breakthroughs into businesses.
Currently, I am focussing on building Arbon, a start-up I co-founded that is working on technologies to capture CO2 from the ambient environment at a low energy cost. Recently, we won a government grant from the New York State and an advance market commitment (AMC) from Frontier Climate to transfer the learnings from the lab to the real world.
Before this effort, I had already witnessed a CO2 conversion solar reactor I developed during my Ph.D. study successfully upscaled and deployed in the field to impact climate at scale. I was honoured to be included in the Forbes “30 under 30” list in Energy (North America), and the spinoff from this project was also recognised as one of the ten finalist teams in the $20M Carbon XPrize, a global competition for breakthrough technologies to convert CO2 emissions into valuable products.
Transitioning From a Mentee to a Mentor to Support Minority Groups
Having travelled a long way, I will never forget my own roots. Growing up in a village in rural China, I was raised by my grandmother after my parents’ divorce. My grandmother was a humble, hardworking farmer, but she could never earn much money from the land. As a child, I often joined her there after school, where she was collecting recyclable bottles from trash. With the money she made selling bottles, she bought food and supported my education. She never had the chance to finish primary school but realised that education would change my future. I followed her advice, and her wisdom is still an essential guidance for my life.
As I transition from a mentee to a mentor, I often advise other students, especially those from first-generation, low-income (FGLI) backgrounds. Spending time writing articles, creating artwork, sitting on interviews, and delivering public talks takes time, but I see it as an integral part of me as a scientist to engage with society. It has also been a fulfilling experience – I constantly receive emails from my readers who said they deeply resonated with my pieces, which helped them navigate some of their own challenges. I also enjoy sharing practical tips from which I benefited a lot, such as risk-taking and self-reflection. Making the “right” decision regarding one’s next steps can be difficult and is an individual process. Faced with two options, I would always choose the one less known – as these routes might promise more impact. Looking back, the most critical decisions in my scientific and personal life so far were to tirelessly pursue higher education and bravely explore disciplinary boundaries. This led to my selection into the Schmidt Science Fellowship and the Activate Fellowship, which offers fantastic support to enable me to pursue my independent vision for translational research.
I also consider my selection as a Young Scientist to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting a significant milestone in my early career. Due to COVID-19 and visa restrictions, I participated online in the Lindau Meetings 2021 (interdisciplinary) and 2022 (Chemistry); during #LINO70, I presented my research during the Next Gen Science Sessions. Although I never attended Lindau on-site – unless I would receive a Nobel Prize – I am proud to be part of the greater Lindau network, and I look forward to finding ways to give back to this community.
Back to Where it All Started
When I travelled to my hometown to see my family in 2019, I found that my town government displayed a tribute to education in the central square, which includes my story to encourage others to pursue education. I thankfully visited this place together with my grandmother. This display reminds me how far I have come, but the square also holds the memory of where I began: It was one of the places my grandmother and I frequented to collect trash.