Thanks to This MIT Scientist, You Can Press Print Using Air Pollution

Inventor Anirudh Sharma wants the carbon in smog to become an office staple.

Dehli, India. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

Oct 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

From billboards and roof tiles coated with smog-eating titanium dioxide to a bus stop that sucks fine particulate matter from the air—over the past few years scientists and innovators around the world have turned their talents to designing ways to reduce the pollution in the atmosphere. But what happens with all the residue that gets removed?

The noxious combination of soot, dust, sulfur, nitrogen oxide, ammonia, and hydrocarbons that kills about 7 million people around the globe every year can be turned into edible meringues or morphed into a diamond ring. Or it could become something that’s a staple in nearly every office building around the world: printer ink.

RELATED: Interactive Map Lets You See the Air Quality of 1,000 Places Around the Globe

That’s the concept behind Kaala, a device created by Anirudh Sharma, an award-winning inventor in India. Kaala sucks pollution from the air and turns it into black printer ink. “This started as a side project, but the impact seemed huge on showing it to people,” Sharma wrote in an email to TakePart.

Sharma, who has co-led the MIT Media Lab India Initiative for the past two years, came up with the idea while reflecting on his personal experience with air pollution.

“Just a minor itch that led me to build something cool from observations arising from nostalgia of the days back in India,” Sharma explained on the project’s website. “There’s so much soot/pollution around us, [especially] in crowded cities. What if the same could be repurposed to generate ink for printers?”

Most ink used in printers is “produced in factories with complex chemical procedures,” added Sharma. “Companies like HP/Canon make 70 percent of their profits by selling these cartridges at 400 percent margin.”

As seen in the video above, Sharma re-created the production of air pollution with a burning candle that emits black carbon-based soot. Kaala uses a simple pump to suck the soot into the device, where it is then mixed with vodka and a bit of olive oil to give it the liquidity of printer ink. Inject the ink into a cartridge, and presto, it’s ready to use.

“This is viable as demonstrated. We did tests and it works,” Sharma wrote by email. Doubt him? Consider this: Sharma has won awards for inventing LeChal, interactive haptic shoes—they guide people by buzzing their feet—for the visually impaired.

As for what would need to happen to bring the prototype of Kaala to scale, Sharma wrote that a partnership with an organization or funder that wants to back the idea would help. To that end, Sharma has several ideas for mass collection of the polluting detritus that obscures the sky and sickens people.

“This could be an attachment that clips onto car exhausts, and captures it for ink before the ‘black’gets into the air and smogs it,” he wrote. “Industrial chimneys, village kitchens working on wood could also be retrofitted with this.”

Kicking exhaust-spewing vehicles off roads is key to reducing pollution too. When Paris banned cars on the last Sunday of September for one day, the amount of nitrogen oxide in the air dropped 20 percent. A once-per-month car-free day in the world’s most polluted city, New Delhi, was announced last week. Officials there estimate that 80 people die every day owing to air pollution.

While the world waits for vehicle manufacturers, politicians, and policy makers to come up with solutions to the world’s pollution problems, Sharma believes there’s also a role for technologists and scientists. “If they don’t do it, we’d do it,” he wrote. “Someone eventually has to solve problems somehow.”