Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. Breathing in the toxic fumes emitted by vehicles, industries, and burning fossil fuels can cause long-lasting illnesses such as heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and asthma.

In London alone, air pollution breached annual legal limits within the first five days of 2017. At a global scale, it is estimated that around 92% of the world’s population lives in areas where air quality exceeds WHO limits, resulting in more than 3 million deaths every year.

As well as dangerous pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, ozone and even lead in the air, one of the most harmful elements of air pollution is soot. This is the fine, black particles of carbon left behind by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. The particles themselves are tiny, measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in width; that’s 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The particles are suspended in the air and can travel deep into the lungs of anyone who breathes them in.

Three engineers behind an MIT Media Lab spin-out have developed a novel use for these life-threatening pollutants. Graviky Labs in India have invented a device that captures air pollution, turning it into safe, high-quality inks. Each 30ml of ink produced cancels out roughly 45 minutes of pollution and turns it into a tool for art.

Sweeping up soot

The story of Graviky Labs began back in 2013 when Nitesh Kadyan, Nikhil Kaushik, and Anirudh Sharma designed the ‘Kaalink’ device. The unit, which is used to capture soot, came to life at Fluid Interfaces, a research group at the MIT Media Lab. The following year, the team started to work on new features for the Kaalink, retrofitting it to the exhaust pipes of cars and trucks. The device itself is roughly the size and shape of a large drinks can, fitting over the exhaust and capturing particulate emissions before they hit the environment.

Once the device was perfected, there still remained the challenge of how to turn the sooty material into something safe and useful. During 2015, the Graviky Labs engineers worked on several chemical processes to detoxify the particulate matter, purifying the soot and removing the carcinogens and heavy metals.

In June 2016, Graviky Labs took Kaalink out onto the streets of Bangalore for some real-world testing, and ink production got under way. With a sure-fire method to clean up the pollutants brought back to the lab, the soot could then be treated with solvents, blended with oils or packaged with compressed gas into spray cans to make different paint products.

1.6 trillion litres cleaner

Having cracked the code to converting pollutants to paint, Graviky Labs teamed up with Tiger Beer to really put the unit to the test. Heading out onto the notoriously polluted streets of Hong Kong, the Kaalink distilled the air into 150 litres of Air Ink, before handing it over to 9 local artists. As part of the promotion, each artist was invited to paint murals with the ink, with the city’s Sheung Wan district as their canvas. The campaign gained 2.5 million views in just 10 days.

Graviky Labs started out as a small group of engineers, hackers and makers, using science, technology and creativity to solve their everyday problems. With an ever present supply of the raw materials to use, Graviky are now looking to grow. Launching their Kickstarter campaign in February of this year, the team hope to crowdsource the funding they need to scale up production of the inks, bringing them to as many people as possible.

Every stroke of the ink on paper is a quantification of the pollution which would otherwise be breathed in by people every day. Since beginning production, Graviky Labs and Kaalink have already cleaned up more than 1.6 trillion litres of air. Looking forwards, they hope the same ‘over the pipe’ technology could be scaled to fit onto boats, chimneys and brick kilns, and even cranes, scrubbing trillions of litres more.

Bangalore Traffic” by Jim Driscoll is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.