How I pivoted my work as a renewable energy researcher to address COVID-19 challenges

Aiming to engage and empower young people in the dialogue and co-creation of sustainable Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) solutions in the East Asia Pacific, UNICEF’s regional office hosted the first-ever “WASH Young Changemakers Mentorship Programme” from June – August 2020. Following a competitive process, UNICEF selected eight young people with new WASH-related solutions as the 2020 WASH Young Changemakers (WYC’s). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire programme was delivered online, including one-on-one mentoring sessions, peer and workshop sessions, networking introductions, and a final pitch where the Changemakers introduced their ideas to over 100 others, including WASH professionals, investors, UNICEF staff from across the globe, government representatives and their peers.

Below, Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, one of the Young Changemakers from China, shares his experience in the programme.

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Then there was COVID – and everything in the whole world suddenly halted. As a Chinese student studying in the US, I recalled myself worrying about my family members when the first wave of corona hit China. Not long afterward, the virus also hit New York State very severely, and I happened to be studying in this area. So I began to ask myself – can a person with a background in a different field like me (e.g., in renewable energy) contribute to the fight against this deadly virus?

I was forced to stay at home while the campus was shut down, and the only place I would visit regularly was Walmart. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I discovered that hand sanitizer was always out of stock at Walmart and other stores. So I began to ask myself, could I use my expertise in the renewable sector to develop solutions for hand sanitizer shortage? I looked at the composition for traditional hand sanitizer to find ways to make it by myself at home. Then I discovered only two alcohols are permitted as active ingredients in alcohol-based hand sanitizers – ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol or 2-propanol). During my Ph.D. research on CO2 conversion, I understood the feasibility of utilizing CO2 to synthesize ethanol with the sun’s renewable energy input. Imagine being able to use waste carbon dioxide — the waste product from power plants and industrial facilities that is mainly responsible for global warming — as an ingredient to make ethanol, which is a crucial component for producing hand sanitizer. This way, we could kill two birds with one stone: combatting the COVID-19 pandemic while mitigating global climate change, and that idea was the spark. I immediately decided that this could be something worth trying. At that point, the UNICEF Young Changemakers on Sustainable WASH Solutions Programme seemed to be the perfect match for me. Then I co-founded C2X, an initiative for converting CO2 emission into hand sanitizer.

The process went so smoothly, and I was later notified that C2X was chosen for the WASH Programme. Throughout the process, my main challenge was on the evaluation of the scale-up potential for my idea. Coming with an engineering background, I lacked the necessary training at school to evaluate the market potentials and the business models. Luckily, as part of the WASH Young Changemakers programme, I was assigned a mentor to guide me through these challenges. During our online sessions, my mentor helped me strengthen my idea and shared with me useful tips on developing an appealing pitch. Alongside me, there were seven other Young Changemakers from across East Asia in the programme, and to help us network and support each other, we were asked to do peer-mentoring sessions. We were based on the phases of our project and our country contexts. I found the peer mentoring sessions extremely useful in refining my storyline for the final pitch event.

Before the pitch, my UNICEF mentor helped introduce us to potential stakeholders interested in our projects. Because of this, I was able to build connections with Dr. Yang Zhenbo, the WASH Specialist at the UNICEF Office for China (Beijing). After the pitch event, we were able to have some in-depth discussions, during which he shared some useful tips on localizing and scaling-up my initiative in China. Without the Young Changemakers on Sustainable WASH Solutions Programme by UNICEF, I could hardly imagine any of these would be possible.

Although meeting in person would have been fun, the online pitch session gave participants a chance to share their ideas with people from all across the globe, including UNICEF’s WASH Director in New York, local government representatives in Indonesia, and investors in Singapore!

During this program, I would also like to share that I was also notified of being selected as a finalist in the “Young Champions of the Earth” Competition by the United Nations Environment Programme, and I believe being chosen as a UNICEF WASH Young Changemaker helped in the process. As an engineer in the energy field, I never expected myself to step into this field – but looking back, all of my previous academic and research training in another area somehow made me the perfect match for this specific programme in WASH. I am excited and confident to take the learnings from the Young Changemakers on Sustainable WASH Solutions Programme, to continue my journey of killing two birds with one stone. By converting harmful emissions into useful hand sanitizers, we are enabling a circular carbon economy. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my mentor from the programme, and all the support staff from UNICEF, who made this an enjoyable experience.

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