Anirudh Sharma remembers the air pollution growing up in India — he just didn't remember it being so bad.
When he took a trip home in 2013, while on break as a student at MIT's Media Lab, the difference in air quality between India and Boston couldn't have been starker.
“It was a very simple observation — I feel like anybody can see it," Sharma says of the pollution's effects in his home country. "Your clothes get dirtier much faster, you can see this pigmentation happening [on] buildings, to your clothes, to everywhere around you."
Sharma found himself wondering: Is there any way to put this awful black gunk to good use? He realized how similar the soot was to the black ink in your standard ballpoint pen, and the comparison prompted him to begin digging deeper.
Inspired by what he saw on his trip, Sharma and fellow co-founder Nikhil Kaushik launched Graviky Labs.
The team is the mastermind behind Air-Ink — an ink that's made from the dirty black pollution emitted from vehicles.
As you can imagine, it takes a few steps to go from air pollution to black ink that's safe for anyone to use.
First, Sharma and his team came up with what they dubbed a "Kaalink" — a device that connects with a vehicle's exhaust pipe to collect soot and pollutants that would otherwise be jetting out into the open air while the engine is running.
Graviky Labs then takes the soot and pollutants and removes harmful or unnecessary materials — like metals and carcinogens — so all that's left is a carbon rich pigment that can be made into various inks and paints.
As of now, Air-Ink is available in various sizes of markers, as well as a printing ink set — and the process of making them is smart for a few reasons.
The obvious positive aspect to Air-Ink is that it prevents pollutants from getting into the atmosphere, keeping our air healthier to breathe. But it also curbs our reliance on conventional ink-making methods that rely on the deliberate burning of fossil fuels to get the job done, Graviky Labs notes.
“We are trying to not only capture pollution and recycle pollution," Kaushik explains, but they're also ensuring less carbon is being emitted from other ink-making sources.
In other words, it's a win-win.
Of course, it also helps that the ink can produce some pretty incredible works of art.
Right now, Air-Ink is only available through a Kickstarter campaign, which is aiming to expand Graviky Labs' operations.
Through funds raised online, Sharma's team is planning to also create oil-based, fabric, and outdoor paints. And from the looks of it, Air-Ink is on the right track to success.
With three weeks still left to go of the campaign, Graviky Labs' Kickstarter has already surpassed its initial fundraising goal of nearly $10,000.
"It feels great,” co-founder Kaushik says of the campaign's success thus far. “We have heard from a lot of people that they want to use it."
Air-Ink won't solve the world's air pollution problems in the long-term. But it's the right type of idea the world needs now.
Most eco-friendly innovations combating climate change and curbing pollution are expensive "replacement" technologies — such as electric cars replacing gas-powered ones — and other things that take longer to go mainstream economically, according to Kaushik. Over the next few years, however, it'll be crucial that we develop less expensive adaptations that can be applied to current technologies (even those as basic as ink production) that will help make the planet greener in the meantime. That's where innovations like Air-Ink come in.
“This is something that can help," Kaushik says. "But it has to be part of a bigger system where other technologies and other innovations pitch in."