Re-Purposing Air Pollution to make Air Inks

LAURA BRIGGS reports on an innovative project that turns city-centre air pollution from vehicle exhausts into Air-Inks for artists
Now, the team is turning to Kickstarter to bring Air-Ink to creative people around the world in the hope of creating a global art and sustainability movement

Imagine if you could take pollution produced by diesel engines and turn it into a non-carcinogenic substance used in ink, reducing the need for burning fossil fuels.

A team of innovative scientists with a desire to clean up the air we breathe has come up with a way to create exactly this thanks to plenty of research and innovative thinking, with a new product called Air-Ink.

Witnessing the impact caused by air pollution first hand in India, Graviky Labs founders Anirudh Sharma, Nikhil Kaushik, and Nitesh Kadyan have spent the last three years working in some of the most polluted areas of India devising a specialist kit that captures 93% of pollution emitted from an engine's exhaust pipe (specifically the unburned carbon released from incomplete combustion).

From this pollution, the team creates ink for use in fabric paint, screen-printing, oil based paints and markers. Just 45 minutes' worth of car emissions can produce one fluid once of ink, enough for one Air-Ink pen.

Anirudh Sharma was working on his research studies with MIT Media Lab, (from which Graviky Labs became a spin-off), when he noticed the shirt he wore would become far dirtier during the day in Mumbai than it did in Boston. He started to consider the best ways in which to re-purpose that dirt. Back at the lab he and his fellow researchers created a small prototype from an Inkjet printer, that would print from candle soot (which led to a lot of interest from various people around the world).

Now he and his co-founders at Graviky hope that Air-Ink will make a real impact on the world. "Each stroke made with Air-Ink arrests particulate matter, which would have otherwise ended up in the lungs of people," he said. "Scaling this is saving lives.

"Using our pollution capture devices, we capture the particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10), which is a highly carcinogenic matter and poses significant risk to human health. The particulate matter derives its carcinogenic properties from its micron size, which does not get filtered by our respiratory system and so can enter the lungs. By binding these carcinogenic particulate matter into inks, we take away their carcinogenic properties since they are no longer a free agent that can mix with the air we breathe in."

Sri Lankan scientist and inventor Suranga Nanayakkara, head of the Augmented Human Lab at Singapore University of Technology and Design, and an advisor to the project adds: "In the developing world, product designers are faced with unique challenges, but they are also faced with amazing opportunities to help people. Air-Ink is a game-changing technology in this space as it would allow future generations to breath fresher air."

To create the ink the pollution has to go through several processes. The devices firstly capture the particulate matter pollutants which consist of around 2.5 and 10 pm carbon, heavy metals, and dust. After this pollution has been captured, it is treated through proprietary processes to remove the heavy metal and dust. What remains is a substantially carbon-rich pigment. This pigment is further ground down to achieve consistency in particle size. After this, standard industrial processes are used to make variety of inks wherein the pigment is used as the coloring agent. 

Now, the team is turning to Kickstarter to bring Air-Ink to creative people around the world in the hope of creating a global art and sustainability movement

The process means that the pollution is no longer airborne and the capture of the heavy metals ensures they aren't free to pollute water sources, soils, forests and farms, damage ecosystems or contribute to acid rain.

In addition, the particulate matter that is captured replaces the need for deliberately burning fossil fuels to make pigments for conventional inks. Through AIR-INK, the founders are promoting the idea of looking beyond conventional fossil fuels to make inks.

At present, the emission-capturing devices are fitted to cars owned by private individuals and cab drivers in Bengaluru. Medium-term plans are to have these units fitted to as many vehicles as possible through collaborations with governments and large logistics companies with the Graviky team responsible for fitting these devices. In the long term, these devices will be manufactured as "plug and play" devices which users can install on their own. Supply of inks is currently governed and restricted by the ability to capture pollution but the Graviky team plans to increase the scale of pollution capture in the near future.

The response has been very positive so far. Several artists across the world have used Air-Ink and individuals, organizations, universities, and even a museum are all waiting for the launch of Air-Ink for retail purchase.

Now, the team is turning to Kickstarter to bring Air-Ink to creative people around the world. Co-founder, Nikhil Kaushik believes this campaign will help create a global art and sustainability movement: "Currently, our pollution capture process is very labor intensive and the inks are manufactured to order," he said. "This Kickstarter campaign will help us to bring Air-Ink to as many people as possible. "

In return for their donations, Kickstarter backers can pledge for varying quantities of Air-Ink markers, Air-Ink T-shirts, screen-printing ink sets, artwork and products created using Air-Ink, an opportunity to work with Graviky Labs for their next video campaign, a visit from the Graviky Labs team to collect pollution in your city, and more. The 30-day Kickstarter campaign will launch on February 7 this year (2017) run until March 9.

You can find out more about Graviky Labs and Air-Ink at and watch the video here.

More on the new Kickstarter Campaign here:

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Laura Briggs is the Ecologist's UK-based reporter




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