Since June 2016, a group of four young Indian scientists has been collecting carbon emissions and soot from car exhaust pipes, chimneys and generators and turning it into an extremely functional product – ink.
The deep black ink, called Air-Ink, is created after soot undergoes a purification process to remove heavy metals and carcinogens, resulting in a purified carbon rich pigment that can be used in printer cartridges, for screen printing and for art supplies, like calligraphy pens or whiteboard markers.
Graviky Labs, the company that made Air-Ink, is a Bengaluru-based lab. It is a clean technology company that is working towards industrialising the process of recycling air pollution emissions into pigments and ink. Graviky Labs was founded by Anirudh Sharma, Nikhil Kaushik and Nitesh Kadyan.
Kaalink to Air Ink
In 2013, Sharma first thought of Air-Ink – except with a different name. At that point, he called it Kaalink. An inventor, Sharma wanted to figure out a way to capture air pollution before it even entered the atmosphere. Together, he and Kaushik created the cylindrical metal contraption that can be attached to car exhaust pipes and industrial chimneys to capture the particulate matter from vehicle and industrial emissions.
By 2015, when the air pollution in Delhi began to hit alarming levels and the Delhi government was implementing measures to improve the air quality in the city, Graviky was already field testing Kaalink. They soon realised that 45 minutes worth of emission could yield almost 30ml of liquid ink, enough to fill one Air-Ink pen.
Graviky has since created several grades of Air-Ink with different applications: markers with 2mm and 15mm round tips, 30mm and 50mm chisel tips, along with screen printing ink.
The founders of Graviky, along with Nisheet Singh, their technical Development Lead, launched a campaign in February on the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, to raise money for the mass production of Air-Ink. Within 10 days, they surpassed their goal of raising $14,000.
“We are currently in discussions with several organisations and governments in India as well as in other parts of the world, for large scale deployment of Kaalink,” said Kaushik. “We are also planning on working with several Indian artists and their response has been phenomenal.”
Street art from the street
The main target consumers for Air-Ink have been street artists and designers until now. As part of their pilot project with Tiger Beer in Hong Kong, the creators of the ink distributed Air-Ink pens among street artists commissioned to design murals on the streets of Hong Kong.
“It seemed pretty obvious that the best people to popularise this technology would be those from the art world,” said Kaushik. “The artists have been the first ones to take Air-Ink out to the world by creating something that connects with the masses.” Celebrated artists, such as Bao Ho, Xeme and Kristopher Ho, were involved in the project.
Since the first event in Hong Kong, many similar events have taken place in other cities, including London, New York, Sidney, Singapore and Amsterdam.
The ink to be used in commercial printers is still undergoing in-house testing. Air-Ink pens will be rolled out for purchase through an online store by Graviky by the end of 2017. According to Kaushik, they are not worried about finding a market for Air-Ink pens, since the artist markers available usually cost between $25 and $30 (Rs 1,600 to Rs 1,900) and the Air-Ink pens will be available at a similar price. “The Air-Ink markers, though made of plastic, are reusable and therefore last for a long time,” said Kaushik. “They can be refiled with our ink or, for that matter, any other ink too. This helps us in making the whole process significantly carbon negative.”
The waste generated by Graviky during the purification process of the soot, is also sorted and recycled by waste management companies. Until now Graviky has produced over a thousand litres of ink and it claims it has purified more than 1.6 trillion litres of air in the process. Their upcoming project includes testing Kaalink on the roads of New Delhi.
Hong Kong-based artist Kristopher Ho was one of the first team of artists engaged in the pilot event to test Air-Ink. “To be honest, when I first heard of the technology of transforming pollution into ink, I thought it was just another marketing gimmick,” said Kristopher. But, as he found out, “the ink itself is solid black and relatively thick compare to other types of inks in the market, which makes it ideal to paint on porous surfaces, since it fills up the tiny pores and gaps”.
In Kristopher’s mural of a charging tiger, the tiger’s fur doubles up as fumes. For his London mural, he drew a similar image but this time with iconic landmarks like the Big Ben and the London Eye, emerging from the fumes. Another mural by street artist Bao Ho shows a future in which everyone wears masks and spacesuits to escape the poisonous air.
Ho used around 15 markers for the mural made for the London leg of the event. “I think very often when artists and designers create their artwork, they tend to create a lot of waste, many artists are well aware of that and they have been trying their best to minimise the waste,” said Ho. “However if we are using recycled material or materials generated from pollution...it’s definitely a better choice. The wonder of having a material which is generated from our everyday waste definitely is a good start to raise awareness of pollution problems around the world.”