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Indian startup turns air pollution into ink

GURGAON, INDIA - DECEMBER 8: Cyber city in office hub witnesses a low visibility due to air pollution on December 8, 2015 in Gurgoan, India. (Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images)
GURGAON, INDIA – DECEMBER 8: Cyber city in office hub witnesses a low visibility due to air pollution on December 8, 2015 in Gurgoan, India. (Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images)

Art has often been used as a medium to raise awareness about pollution but an India-based startup is taking the concept further, creating paint and ink from the pollution itself.

Developed by self-described chronic inventor Anirudh Sharma via Graviky Labs, a spin-off from MIT media labs, the idea for Air Ink grew out of a conversation between the researcher and his peers about the stains left on their clothes by heavy air pollution.

“We built this contraption that we connect the exhaust on the tail pipe of the car,” explains Sharma in a video about his invention. “After we are done capturing the raw carbon, the soot, we take it through a purification process and then we convert that air pollution into printing ink.”

He points out that the same process can be used with boats or chimneys to capture some of the effluence and convert it into ink. The startup partnered with the Heineken Asia Pacific-owned alcohol brand Tiger Beer and collectively they’ve transformed air pollution into 150 litres of Tiger Air Ink.

To put it in perspective, a 0.7mm round tip pen consists of approximately 40 minutes of diesel car pollution.

Tiger and Graviky teamed up with ten Hong Kong-based artists to test out their product.

“When you start talking to people from different disciplines, they show you things about your own technology in a way you never imagine before,” says Sharma in the video.

Graviky isn’t the first to use art to battle pollution. Artists have tried tackling similar challenges in novel ways in other cities like Beijing where smog alerts are a regular thing.

Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde is set to test out his seven-metre-tall air purifier in the city of 21 million this September. The $125,000 “smog free tower” – which Roosegaarde has already piloted in Rotterdam – is capable of eliminating 70 to 80 per cent of pollution in an area the size of a football stadium over the course of 36 hours. Carbon particles stripped from the air will be compressed and sealed into acrylic rings, cuff links and other designs and sold to fund further research and construction.

The project was commissioned by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and has already piqued interest in other cities like Santiago, Chile; Mexico City, Mexico as well as New Delhi and Mumbai in India.

And a Canadian startup has taken its own peculiar approach to clean air, selling bottled air (yes, it’s real) from the Canadian Rockies. Edmonton-based Vitality Air made headlines all over the world last year when it started selling bottles of fresh air for $15.

While the founders Moses Lam and Troy Paquette admit it started as a joke, they decided to seriously pursue it after a Ziploc bag sold for about $220 online.

“Literally we waved it and then we sealed it up and taped it up,” Lam told the CBC adding that the companies target markets are China, India and Dubai – “the world’s most populated cities.”

While it’s definitely a more bizarre solution to air quality woes than Graviky Labs inks, there are plenty of lines to be drawn to the artistic approach taken by others. And it’s this out-of-the-box thinking that Air Ink’s Sharma champions.

“That fusion of art, that fusion of expression, and science when it happens, I think new magic appears,” says Sharma.

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