Tailpipe soot could be seen as just another resource – all you need is a good way to use it. In ink, for example, the pollutant is suddenly quite useful.
Smog is irritating in both senses of the word. It makes it hard to see and breathe and ultimately damages your health. In large cities in particular, some places are enveloped in a thick, choking fog. So it makes sense that a number of projects and measures are addressing the problem and trying to make smog a thing of the past. What might happen, though, if we looked at smog particles like a resource we could transform into something useful?
Harvesting air pollution
This is the idea that came to Anirudh Sharma, an Indian engineer and at the time a student at MIT’s Media Lab, when he returned home after his time in the US: “The moment I moved back to India, I realised that my frequency of doing laundry had increased several times over,” he recalls. The reason: air pollution. “The pollution contains unburned carbon, and the unburned carbon that is in the environment is mainly carbon black.” Carbon black is the essence of black ink. This is nothing new really, as people have been making ink from soot for centuries. All it takes is a binding agent like rubber or oil.
In 2015, together with a team of fellow MIT students, Sharma set up a lab in India to turn his idea into a useful product. Their first challenge was finding a way to “harvest” air pollution effectively.
After experimenting with different prototypes, they managed to develop a gadget, the “Kaalink”, that fits on a car tailpipe or small chimney stack. The little catalysator captures and confines soot instead of releasing it into the environment, filtering out close to 95% of the emitted pollution particulate, as Sharma explains. That done, the harmful elements like heavy metals and carcinogens are removed from the captured air pollution to get a purified pigment that can then be used to create different types of inks and paints.
“Less pollution and more art”
The students presented their prototype at a conference where they discovered something that showed the way forward: “We quickly learned that environmentalists and artists loved it.” One of the first firms to show interest in Air Ink was Tiger Beer (Heineken) from Singapore. The brewery began outfitting its delivery vans with a Kaalink and using the soot collected to make ink. The company kicked off a 2016 campaign featuring famous street artists from cities like Hong Kong, Berlin, London and Singapore who used the ink in their murals. In the end, art created using the black smog ink was on display in 12 countries.
This attracted a lot of attention to Air Ink and its inventors, who decided to launch their own product with the help of crowdfunding. They have long since left MIT to found Graviky Labs that markets Air Ink, selling ink for use on packaging and apparel and in pens.