Ink Out Of Thin Air: Make Your Own Ink

make your own ink

To be more accurate, this is ink made from air pollution, specifically dirty diesel fumes from a vehicle.

Back in 2012 on a trip to India, MIT scientist Anirudh Sharma noticed a diesel generator chugging away close to a white wall which had created a large black stain and this got him thinking: what if that pollution could be harnessed and made into something useful? Black printer ink is created by mixing carbon black, essentially a form of soot left after burning coal or oil, with a carrier, usually petroleum or vegetable based, and a solvent. The carbon black though is commercially produced, made in factories by burning fossil fuels to supply the industry with a ready ingredient. Wouldn’t it make sense to use all the pollution we are already creating?

make your own ink

Sharma set about collecting the PM2.5, the collective name for the fine particulate matter that is largely invisible in the air but created the black stain on the wall, in his lab. He started out with a simple candle and collected the soot with a homemade contraption, mixing it with oil and vodka to make an ink that could be run through a hacked printer cartridge. From here his team developed a device that could fit on a car exhaust, which they named a Kaalink, and managed to create a working black ink from diesel emissions and bottle it.

They called their super dark black product Air-Ink and made a set of marker pens which were commercially produced via a Kickstarter project. Soon big business came calling and Tiger Beer collaborated with them on an art initiative: artists all over the world were using the pens to create murals and street art. But with the attention came a more worrying trend: polluters were suddenly sending sacks of carbon black waste to their office address, asking if they could make use of it or even buy it from them. What happens if we don’t? wondered Sharma. Does it end up in a river?

All of which lead him and his team, now named Graviky Labs, into developing a more ambitious scaled up device that can be affixed to chimney stacks and other polluting sources. Carbon particulate pollution is a menace, especially in countries like India where particulate filters are not commonplace, penetrating deeply into the lungs and associated with increased mortality. Just 45 minutes-worth of diesel emissions from a car can produce 30ml of ink, enough to fill a standard pen (not a fountain!) and the emissions from 2,500 hours of driving one standard diesel vehicle produces about 150 litres of ink.

The ink has gone down well with the artist community, users commenting on its superior qualities and the plan is now to expand on an industrial scale. Hopefully in time this means we can quite literally write off some of our waste.

You can even buy this ink in pen form…although they aren’t the cheapest pens out there. Click here to see more

Make your own ink

Inspired by the idea of making my own ink from pollution I decided to have a go. Having watched the TED video of Sharma and his team making their ink using a tealight and a homemade contraption, I looked up some ‘recipes’ online. It all seemed relatively simple so I enlisted the help of a bored student (my son Linus) and we set about having a go.

It turns out that soot is a lot harder to collect than you might think: the candle took so long to produce anything we feared we might be there forever, the recipe calling for ‘a large amount’. Taking a short cut by adding some matchsticks to the flame created a nice furnace effect and seemed initially to be a good idea. A distant memory of some fire brigade advice about tea lights getting hot and burning through tabletops did mean I used a trivet underneath the candle holder. Good thing too as hot it most certainly got and the solid glass (nice!) candle holder cracked into pieces scattering our meagre supply of soot everywhere.

Eventually I harvested some soot from our fireplace and we had at last ‘a large amount’ to work with which we mixed with surgical spirit and some shampoo (that’s what the recipe said). The result was a nasty black mess which may have been because the soot was old and lumpy or because we are just total amateurs and didn’t make a contraption.  We plan to try again, maybe with tea next time, but not soot as it took us ages to get it all off the kitchen table: in that respect we created a very effective black dye.

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Make Ink, a Forager’s Guide – Jason Logan

If I haven’t put you off the idea of making your own ink then this is a proper recipe book for 12 different colour inks using natural foraged ingredients such as peach stones, cigarette butts and turmeric. As much an art book really with lots of beautiful images, the idea is to get you interested in the concept and then, having had some success, experiment with your own ideas. It’s a lovely gift for anyone who loves ink or making things.

Click here to buy Make Ink

Blackstone Ink Mixing Kit

Easier still is this ink mixing kit from Australian cult ink makers Blackstone that allows you to create your own unique product from the four basic CMYK colours. I haven’t used it myself but ink artist and blogger Nick Stewart has and he says the kit looks stunning and is easy to use – you can see his results here. Check out his beautiful blog at too.

make your own ink
Image courtesy of Nick Stewart
make your own ink
Image courtesy of Nick Stewart
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