Recycling air pollution into inks: AIR-INK by Graviky Labs

Smoke Scream! STIR selects design projects, people and practices that aim to kill the smoke with smart innovation.

by Zohra Khan Dec 14, 2019

Anirudh Sharma, the Co-founder of Bengaluru-based Graviky Labs, often quotes a statement by the visionary American architect, R. Buckminster Fuller, to introduce his practice to people: “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting.”

While our cities are turning into gas chambers, the MIT Boston graduate is bringing a unique approach of looking at air pollution as an opportunity for innovation. At Graviky Labs, his team upcycle carbon from various air pollution sources like chimneys and exhausts and turn it into high quality ink. AIR-INK by Graviky Labs is the world’s first ink recycled out of air pollution, used in carbon-negative printing and production.

Graviky Labs upcycle carbon from various air pollution emission sources and turn them into high quality ink | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
Graviky Labs upcycle carbon from various air pollution sources and turn them into high quality ink Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

In a conversation with STIR, Sharma spoke about the inception of his practice, which is backed by pollution as the resource as well as explains the core of AIR-INK and other innovations on the anvil.

Zohra Khan (ZK): How did you come about with the idea of turning air pollution into printing ink?

Anirudh Sharma (AS): I am from a science background and I studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in Boston. I used to experiment a lot. It was one of those weekend projects I was working on with Professor Pattie Maes at the Fluid Interfaces group at MIT in 2012. The project was born out of a simple observation. But after I saw that people started responding to it in a very different way and they said they want to use it in their art, we started taking it seriously.

  • Pollution from car exhausts as the source in one of the researches | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    Pollution from car exhausts as the resource in creating inks Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs
  • On-site extraction of particulate matter from car exhausts | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    On-site extraction of particulate matter from car exhausts Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs
  • A research prototype used in extraction of particulate matter | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    A research prototype used in extraction of particulate matter Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

ZK: What are the key developments that we must know about Graviky Labs, and how has the practice evolved over the years?

AS: When we started, our intention was to develop an original deck which fundamentally changes the way people look at new materials. This began with a lot on the scientific and research end and then fundamentally taking that science and turning it into a new product that people can start to use in their conventional everyday life.

If you look at pollution, it is a problem and something that no one wants but if you look at it from a material perspective, it is extremely rich in carbon. – Anirudh Sharma, Co-founder, Graviky Labs
  • AIR-INK by Graviky Labs | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    AIR-INK by Graviky Labs Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs
  • AIR-INK by Graviky Labs | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    AIR-INK by Graviky Labs Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

Science only becomes important when different fields sit up and start applying it. Earlier we used to capture pollution, now there are hundreds of polluters who contact us and send us their pollution which we then turn into a new material. If you look at pollution, it is a problem and something that no one wants but if you look at it from a material perspective, it is extremely rich in carbon. We are developing new materials out of it without spending much energy on the process. We are turning that carbon into raw carbon that is going to be used in different industries.

AIR-INK is simply made from what should not have been out there and is replacing what was otherwise being produced by a fossil fuel. – Anirudh Sharma, Co-founder, Graviky Labs
A diagram illustrating the making of AIR-INK | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
A diagram illustrating the making of AIR-INK Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

ZK: What is at the core of AIR-INK?

AS: If you see the AIR-INK marker, it is not just a marker but 40-50 minutes worth of material car pollution that would have otherwise gone into the environment. What it also does is that it replaces the need of a conventional black marker. For example, if one is using the same amount of ink, one would have to put carbon in black colour and that carbon will be produced by deliberately burning fossil fuels. This is the main core of our product and the idea of it being sustainable. AIR-INK is simply made from what should not have been out there and is replacing what was otherwise being produced by a fossil fuel.

  • Harvested carbon from air pollution sources | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    Harvested carbon from air pollution sources Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs
  • A bottle containing particulate matter extracted by Graviky Labs | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    A bottle containing particulate matter extracted by Graviky Labs Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs
  • Particulate matter samples | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    Particulate matter samples Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

ZK: Can you briefly describe the process how these inks are made and who do you work with to create these products?

AS: From beginning to the end, there are several collaborations that come into play. It starts from the polluter who wants to save money that it would otherwise end up giving to conventional waste management companies. The biggest of industries burn fossil fuels to produce what they are producing. To capture this pollution to meet compliance, they pay the waste management companies who come in and take it away.

It is not just a ‘good-to-the-world-so-lets-just-fund-it’ kind of an idea. It’s solving everybody’s problems at an economic level as well. – Anirudh Sharma, Co-founder, Graviky Labs
AIR-INK products | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
Products by Graviky Labs Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

Because we are spearheading this movement in materials, all these polluters are willing to rather just give their waste to Graviky Labs. Here, the carbon rich waste goes through several processes before turning into compliant raw material. At every step, there is a collaboration happening. It is not just a ‘good-to-the-world-so-lets-just-fund-it’ kind of an idea. It’s solving everybody’s problems at an economic level as well.

The AIR-INK became powerful because a community of creatives picked it up and they did things of their own with this product. What started as a series of global material movements is helping push industries forward.

  • Posters by AIR-INK designed for various events and campaigns across the world | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    Posters by AIR-INK designed for various events and campaigns across the world Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs
  • Tiger Beer x AIR-INK at Clean Air Gallery in London (2017) in which each painting on display was made with Air-INK | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
    Tiger Beer x AIR-INK at Clean Air Gallery in London (2017) in which each painting on display was made with Air-INK Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

ZK: What are the innovations in AIR-INK forward from here?

AS: There are series of new materials that we are developing, and the demand has come from industries that want to replace conventional materials. The consumer is asking for better things out there. People are waking up to what are we doing to the world. Now it has reached a point where both Indian and western consumers are dealing with pollution, and in the end all pollution is the product of consumption because things are being produced. People today are instead asking how they can consume better things so that the production does not pollute.

ZK: Is AIR-INK available to Indian users as well?

AS: When people directly contact us, we at times do give it out in India but at this stage we only retail it in New York because of the early adopter community there.

Artwork by Hong Kong Artist Bao-Ho using AIR-INK | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
Artwork by Hong Kong Artist Bao-Ho using AIR-INK Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

ZK: How do you think a product like AIR-INK which is still an alien concept to many can be mainstreamed in the collective consciousness and people accept it in everyday use?

AS: It always starts with an alien concept where people first get surprised but eventually start accepting it. Just think about recycling of paper. Today, 70 percent of paper that is around us which we see in coffee shops or in packaging is all recycled paper. When the concept first came, it was extremely alien but now you see how the industries have become mature and have adapted recycling to its processes.

It is the job of the early adopters who push an alien idea forward. – Anirudh Sharma, Co-founder, Graviky Labs
Anirudh Sharma (right) with an artist working with AIR-INK  | Graviky Labs | STIRworld
Anirudh Sharma (right) with an artist working with AIR-INK Image Credit: Courtesy of Graviky Labs

It goes like a hierarchy where once the creatives have adopted and have done great things with the product, it goes to the second level of community of people who adopt things because of the prices. The next step for us, which is also the key, is to find ways to reduce prices and increase adoption.

AIR-INK by Graviky Labs was presented at Look Outside This House, curated by Sudarshan Shetty at Serendipity Arts Festival, 2019.

Read more from the series:

The Biomaterial Revolution: Green Charcoal by Shreyas More and Meenal Sutaria
Breathing lungs for Delhi: Aũra towers and drones by Studio Symbiosis
Designing breathable cities: Smog Free Project by Daan Roosegaarde
Turning rice straw into resource:'Better Air Now' by IKEA
Traditional solutions to air pollution:CoolAnt Coral by Ant Studio

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than two years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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