Aug 9, 2019 - 5min read
As part of Tonik’s Renewable Revolutionaries series - a celebration of today’s pioneers who are finding new and creative ways to clean our air - we spoke to Anirudh Sharma, founder of Graviky Labs, about how his invention AIR-INK turns wasteful pollutants into art and industrial production resources.
The experiment began in 2013 – with a candle, some friends and an inkjet printer – while Anirudh was completing his master’s degree at MIT. After graduating, Anirudh and his team opened Graviky Labs in Bangalore, India, to develop a series of technologies. He talks to Tonik about the journey from candle to car exhaust to artist’s material.
Hey Anirudh, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. What is AIR-INK?
Thanks for reaching out to us Tonik. Simply put, AIR-INK is an ink made from the pollutants in the air.
The black ink in your inkjet printer, or the pen on your desk, is basically made from soot – that’s why it’s sometimes known as ‘carbon black’. The ink is made by mixing the powder residue after burning coal or oil with a polymer and a solvent.
After seeing a diesel generator stain a white wall while in India in 2012, a thought came to me, could air pollution be used as a pigment? Why burn more fossil fuels to create ink, when we could use the products of those already being burned? That’s where the idea began.
It’s not just about removing pollutants from the air – although that’s reason enough in itself – but ink is such a powerful medium to connect with people. Think about books, art, even fashion and textiles: this pollution could have a new life in creating something beautiful.
There’s a quote from inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller that feels very relevant to this question: "Pollution is nothing but resources we're not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value."
What happened next?
In 2013, a few friends and I successfully experimented at hacking an inkjet printer to use soot from a candle. A year later, after completing my master’s degree, I returned to India to develop AIR-INK.
In India, where I had first been inspired by the idea of pollutants as ink, there was no shortage of pollution sources for experimenting with. Relaxed regulations also mean that waste is expensive to dispose of properly. Without proper systems, waste surfaces in landfills and rivers. Graviky put proposals out to factories for their carbon waste, and they were happy to oblige.
How do you collect the pollution?
Graviky developed a filter called Kaalink (from ‘kaala’ - the hindi word for black). Kaalink is a steel cylinder that can be attached to an exhaust, but the technology can be scaled to fit any source. It filters air pollution and turns it into soot, which can then be hydrated to form AIR-INK.
An AIR-INK marker pen contains 30ml of AIR-INK which is equivalent to about 45 minutes of diesel car pollution.
What happened next?
The time came to share AIR-INK with the rest of the world. The product was tried and tested, it was time to get creative.
Graviky paired with the Singapore-based brewery Tiger Beer to use AIR-INK to make street art in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong. Art wasn’t the way to make money for us — it was the way for us to build a community. They [artists] take this idea beyond the science.
If the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to society, then it is no surprise that so many works are now focusing on themes of sustainability, and that runs all the way through to the artist’s choice of materials. AIR-INK made its exhibition debut at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, in the exhibition “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial”.
Artist and senior curator Ellen Lupton, who used AIR-INK to stencil part of the exhibition’s message, said: “I was surprised at how functional the product is. It’s an incredible notion that you can turn pollution into ink. I didn’t think it would be so fun to use. It makes you think, if these particles are in the air and they’re that pigmented, it’s chilling.”
My sights are set on AIR-INK expanding to an industrial scale, being used in offices, newsprint, textbooks and textile printing.
By leading the global battle against climate change, the UK could inspire other countries to follow suit, greatly reducing the risk of dangerous levels of global warming. So, what is there to lose? How can the UK go about reaching zero emissions? How will it impact our everyday lives? And what can we do to help, and fight climate change in the process?
Here are some terrifying facts: up to 1 trillion plastic bags are still used every year and only one in 200 plastic bags are recycled; 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic bags in the ocean every year; it takes between 100 and 500 years for a plastic bag to disintegrate.