printer ink frankieleon/Flickr

Anirudh Sharma doesn't just want to pull harmful carbon from the air. He wants to offer a cheaper alternative to the exorbitant costs of ordinary printer ink.

Sharma recently invented "Kaala," a device that can gobble up harmful pollutants and instantly repurpose them, with a little help from alcohol and oil, into black printer ink.

One day, Sharma hopes to commercialize the device so it can live in every home around the world. 

The idea came to him after one-too-many smog-filled trips to his home country of India.

"On a hot summer day, if you take a handkerchief and rub it on your skin, the handkerchief actually turns a little brownish-blackish in color," says Sharma, a scientist at MIT's Media Lab. "So we thought, 'How do we repurpose something we complain about on an everyday basis into something that is a utility?'"

For the device to work, it first needs to be exposed to exhaust. In his demo, Sharma uses the flame of a candle.

While the candle burns, a suction pump pulls in the surrounding air to a simple mechanism that separates the carbon black — a byproduct of combustion — from the rest of the air. It then traps the soot in a small chamber to be mixed with alcohol — in this case, vodka — and a drop of olive oil.

Lastly, the newly formed liquid can be injected into an ordinary ink cartridge for everyday use.

Sharma admits the black could still be blacker. Since it was designed as a research project, Kaala would also need to hold up against formal toxicity standards before it can hit the market.

"With a little bit of research," he says, "it can become as good as the printing ink HP sells to you." 

Sharma estimates a 4-year-old diesel engine could produce enough carbon to fill an HP cartridge within 60 minutes. A chimney would take only 10 minutes approximately.

Recreating that ink wouldn't take much effort.

"Usually, people don't know about this, but the ink you're buying is nothing," he says. "It's just carbon black mixed with a few chemicals, and that's all. If you're making your own ink, the cost would definitely be much, much lower."

Sharma hopes that his handheld device could scale to a size that sits on par with leading carbon-capture systems: huge walls of fans that trap carbon lurking in the air.