Churning Gold From Garbage: MIT Scientist Turns Air Pollution Into Printer Ink


Take a moment away from your computer. Put down that smartphone for a few minutes and look outside the window. What do you see? If you live in a metropolitan area, possibly a big city or an industrial town- 56% of the world's urban population live in such areas – you will see swirls of dark smoke merging ever so slightly with greyish cumulo-nimbus clouds. A sign that the wheels that run the world's economy are still turning. And if you listen keenly, you will hear the bustling and the hustling of traffic as motorists purr their way around the city.

To make money, we have to spend money. And similarly, to improve our lives we still need to taint a part of it. Sadly, that's the harsh reality of life. But is there really a way around it?

We may not be able to correct all the flaws brought about by civilisation, but at least some of us are trying and succeeding. Meet Anirudh Sharma, an MIT scientist and the brains behind a cleverly thought-out and innovative prototype – the Kaala-Printer contraption. On the most basic level, this invention absorbs industrial exhaust and toxic carbon ( air pollutants ) and repurposes it to make conventional printing ink.

ink cartridges

And come to think of it, ordinary printing ink is simply carbon black particles laced with a few chemical solvents and then packed in some fancy cartridges. If anything, veterans in this industry such as HP and Canon accrue more than 70% of their profitable returns by selling such cartridges at more than 400% margin. Now you know why printing is becoming such a more and more expensive affair by the day.

How it works.



By today's standards, Sharma's project is what you can term as simplicity at its best. It sucks toxic exhaust from the air, using a specially fit suction pump and using a micro-controlled process, the carbon black ( soot) is separated from air and trapped separately. The collected soot is then mixed with alcohol and an oil-based concentrate – a drop of olive oil in this case. Now, the resultant liquid can be injected into a conventional inkjet cartridge and be used like ordinary printing ink. For this project, Sharma interfaced a microcontroller board ( Arduino ) with an HP C6602 inkjet thus turning the assembly into a 100dpi printing platform. Pretty decent, we must say.

Presently, since the prototype is at its developmental stages, it can only churn out standard quality, non-uniform ink that is only good for basic printing. But that's good enough especially considering the immense potential behind this project when implemented on a large-scale basis. Not only could such a project be used to scale down the carbon levels in the world's most polluted cities, but it can also be used in making ordinary printing ink more affordable especially in third world economies.

The idea behind the Kaala Printer contraption.

So you are probably asking yourself, how does one think of converting soot into ink? What motivates a self-professed 'chronic inventor' to direct his efforts and intellect in developing such as a seemingly rudimentary invention? I mean, MIT scientists should be investing their time in designing flying cars or something, right?

But for Sharma, the script reads a little different. Growing up and visiting his motherland – India – Anirudh couldn't help notice how polluted and smog-filled the air in cities such as New Delhi was. If anything, world health reports show that close to 80 people on average die out of pollution-related complications in India every day. Politicians might make policies to curb the pollution ( like the compulsory once-a-month car free day in New Delhi ) but Sharma knew that only a scientific invention could be pragmatic enough.

The future is bright.

According to Sharma, his Kaala-Printer contraption project is one crucial step towards a smogless and pristine world. He hopes and plans on commercializing and mass-producing his prototype so that this ingenious printer becomes more or less a household item all over the world.

Even better, there's no telling what he could achieve by integrating such an innovation with a complex carbon-capture systems or pollution suction pumps that are already a landscape feature in the world's most heavily industrialized zones. And closer home, who wouldn't want to make their own ink as they sit in traffic at the end of a hard day?