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Leon Kaye headshot

Air-Ink Turns Air Pollution Into Pens

By Leon Kaye

Can scribbling orders on a sticky note help fight air pollution? Two entrepreneurs believe so.

Anirudh Sharma and Nikhil Kaushik co-founded Graviky Labs, a startup that claims responsibility for cleaning at least 1.6 trillion liters (422 billion gallons) of air so far.

Sharma and Kaushik say they have perfected a device that captures soot from cars and diesel generators. Gasses pass through the small unit, while other byproducts of fuel combustion -- including those noxious particles that cause respiratory diseases -- are trapped.

In an interview with Wired, Sharma said his inspiration for the device came from his upbringing in Delhi, when his clothes would become dirty after only one day of wear due to pollution.

While he was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sharma started experimenting with devices that would trap soot from candles. He found over time that he could create ink that was similar in quality to commercial inks for computer printers or pens. And Air-Ink, which became a project of MIT Media Labs, was born.

As Graviky Labs collects the soot traps from drivers and generator owners, the exhaust particulates are stripped of contaminants such as heavy metals, and the sooty powder is then mixed with oils and solvents.

The ink is now the base of five products, including pens that perform similarly to Sharpie markers, a wide pen that works well for murals and large art installations, and spray paint. Each product showcases the amount of air pollution that it contains: a 0.7-millimeter, round-tip pen is made from about 40 minutes of diesel car pollution, while the 600 milliliter spray can holds the equivalent of 2,000 hours of the same pollution.

For now, Graviky Labs has a partnership with the Singaporean beer brand Tiger, and both companies work together to distribute the ink products to artists in cities like Hong Kong.

Graviky Labs says its products are ready for market, but it launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in order to scale their manufacture. To date, the campaign has surpassed its relatively modest goal of raising $10,000. The company says it will also use the funds to develop inks that can be used for fabric as well as outdoor installations.

In interviews with multiple outlets, Sharma acknowledged that Air-Ink is hardly a panacea for the world’s air pollution problems, especially in crowded Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. Nevertheless, if the company can scale, Air-Ink can become an effective case study of social enterprise and environmental stewardship.

Furthermore, Sharma and Kaushik will have no shortage of raw materials and feedstock. As recently profiled in Fortune, many cars continue to move about India's city roads with little or zero emissions controls. The result is that India may spend up to 3 percent of its total GDP on healthcare costs related to respiratory diseases, reports the Economic Times, one of India’s largest daily newspapers.

Image credit: Graviky Labs/Kickstarter

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye