Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Graviky labs: When soot turns to ink

A large mural of Calvin and Hobbes, the famous cartoon characters, engaged in a spirited jig is splashed across the wall of the Edifice building on 80ft Road, Indiranagar, Bengaluru, where Graviky Labs is located. The space inside is equally quirky. Remnants of experiments in progress are scattered all across the grey concrete floor and the somewhat sparse furnishing. Bicycles are parked in the room. Wires, beakers and round-bottomed lab flasks are placed on stained tables. And large, white sheets smeared with black ink—enough to conduct multiple Rorschach tests—add to the general mayhem.

Natural light streams through a large glass bottle filled with black ink, highlighting the trail of black residue speckled on its sides. “If that was in the air, it could give you cancer," says Anirudh Sharma, co-founder and director of Graviky, who graduated from the Fluid Interfaces Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in the US.

The ink in the bottle, called Air-Ink, is derived from soot found in the air. What Graviky does is capture soot from vehicular emissions and purify it extensively to remove heavy metals and carcinogens, before distilling it into this dense black ink.

Soot, produced due to the incomplete burning of fossil fuels, easily enters the body’s bloodstream when inhaled at traffic signals, wreaking havoc. “There was a study that proved that the life expectancy of policemen who stand at the traffic signal is really low because of this exposure," Nikhil Kaushik, another of Graviky’s co-founders, says.

Disturbingly, a recent analysis of US space agency Nasa’s satellite data by the activist organisation Greenpeace indicates that India overtook China’s air pollution levels in 2015. “For the first time this century, the average particulate matter exposure was higher for Indian citizens than that of Chinese people," Greenpeace said in a statement.

Sharma was a research student at the MIT Media Lab in Boston when he first came up with Kaalink, a tailpipe retrofit that captures soot emitted from vehicles without creating back pressure. This contraption can be customized to fit on to a range of machines—cars, bikes, trucks, even generators. The soot gathered by it is then detoxified using chemical processes before being processed further to create a range of inks and paints.

“Look, a lot of people have worked on waste collection," says Kaushik. “But where does that waste go?" Graviky not just helps reduce air pollution, but uses the soot it captures to create a substance that has wide application. “Air-Ink is formulated by industry standards. We can put it to a range of uses—regular inks, screen painting, newspaper ink, oil-based paints, alcohol-based paints, spray cans, even calligraphy ink," says Kaushik.

Graviky Labs, which was incorporated this year, hopes to reinterpret environmental conservation by fusing science and arts. Their pilot project, a collaboration with Tiger beer (part of Heineken Global) in 2016 in Hong Kong, saw seven Hong Kong-based artists covering the walls of the city with Air-Ink. “They (Tiger) wanted to do something that had a social message, so they decided to sponsor this campaign," says Kaushik, adding that a video made on the phenomenon went viral, garnering around 2.5 million views in 10 days. “Over 2,000 artists have written to us, wanting this material," he laughs.

The team hopes to scale up production and is currently in talks with various government agencies and large automobile manufacturers. “There has to be mass-scale adoption for any renewable energy system to work," says Sharma. Currently, the team is engaged in optimizing the unit, which is in the patent-pending stage. Holding out a small, 30ml whiteboard marker, Sharma smiles, “The ink in this is equivalent to about 45 minutes of car emission."

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