Painting with pollution

A student's inventive solution converts exhaust into ink

25 Oct 2018

LONDON—When student Anirudh Sharma began experimenting with a small printer that could swap ink for soot, he didn’t dare dream of its potential. Now his award-winning concept, created at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is the basis for a product that creates paint and ink from polluted air. UBS sat down with Sharma, co-founder of Graviky Labs, to learn more.

How did the idea first occur to you?

It was simple really. If you stand behind a black cab, you’ll see how quickly your white shirt will get dirty. Pollutants make things blacker and dirtier, and it made me think: ‘Why can’t that black pigment be reused for writing too?'

So, I started building a little printer that could suck in soot and turn it into ink.

What did it take to get it off the ground?

I came up with the concept when I was in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT. After that, it took two years with a good team of 5-7 people to stabilize the technology so we could go out into the real world. Since then, we have formed our own company, Graviky Labs.

What is the process? There are lots of toxins in vehicle exhausts. How do you know they aren’t getting through to the ink?

We make international-grade ink, so it has to go through a compliance process.

The good thing is we are working on diesel-generated exhausts – so it’s mostly carbon. We have a process to remove lead and other impurities, and we have to kill the heavy metals inside so the extracted pigment is virtuously usable. It’s a patent, an IP.

Who does it appeal to?

It appeals to people who want to comply with emissions [standards], appeals to environmentalists, to a big group of artists that want to use new materials for their artwork, and to companies and brands. We are entering a new age of printing technologies, and they’re the sorts of people who have jumped on this and say ‘Can we start printing with it?’ and want to use it regularly.

Is it being used by artists or industry? Who are the primary buyers at the moment?

Initially, I felt very inspired by artists using it, because it created this wonderful attraction and belief in the idea. Soon, though, a number of companies came along and said: ‘Can we use it?’

Things have developed organically from there. We are now supplying companies and upgrading their printing process to be carbon negative, as well as working with individual artists around the world to use AIR-INK. There is a London-based artist called Mr. Doodle who is one of the primary artists using AIR-INK and who we ran a campaign with on Brick Lane.

What is the next big step for the business?

To be able to capture more pollution. ... The more [we] capture, the more we can turn into ink.

On the one hand, we are creating these different technologies and, on the other, we are working with companies. It’s like running multiple companies on one site right now, but the primary focus is on scaling up our technologies.

So, the limit on you isn’t the demand. It’s on the production?

Exactly. It’s the supply of pollution.

That seems counterintuitive to me, thinking about the amount of population we have here in London or you have in Bangalore.

Yes, but we need to produce more of these capture devices, so we are working with investors on how we can scale this up worldwide to where the problem of pollution will reach in the next 10 years.

Is this a curiosity, or is it a bigger solution for pollution?

It always starts with curiosity, but there are practical implications. It’s like starting a new industry in the sense that, when recycling paper wasn’t even a thing, someone came up with recycling paper as a solution to all the waste and the trees being cut – now you don’t even notice, 80% of paper you see is recycled. When you show that there is a possible way to show more uses of particle matter that is anyway being produced, then people are more inspired to capture more pollution and find uses for it.

How do you see this technology developing in the next five years?

Since we are a start-up, things are literally changing every week. I think over the next year, you’ll see us doing more pollution capture nationally and see some very iconic brand collaborations happening.

Are these collaborations happening already?

I cannot publically announce right now but we are working with a Fortune 500 company like we did with Tiger. I can only say it’s a fashion brand.

How much does the ink cost?

At this point, it’s not the least expensive option. It is expensive because of low volumes right now. For example, on Kickstarter, we sold 30ml marker for approximately USD $27, but we have a lot of demand. We want to reduce the prices and increase our demand.

Are you optimistic about the future? Is it possible to make a difference?

I am a problem-solver, so yes, I think we can make a difference, not only to people’s lives but the environment around you and the air around us.