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On emissions

Gemma Longman: Flickr

Gemma Longman: Flickr

Unless you’ve spent your whole life living on the International Space Station, you probably know that cars emit toxic gases.

These gases include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, as well as carbon particulates and hydrocarbons (unburnt fuel). In general, it’s pretty obvious that this combination isn’t something you want to go near or risk breathing in. And you certainly wouldn’t expect it to be something you could draw a pretty picture with.

A team of MIT engineers found a solution and invented a device that collects up to 95 percent of harmful fumes from cars and turns them into a totally usable ink.

In the late 1970s, cars started to become equipped with catalytic converters after regulations on exhaust fumes tightened. However, as well as being difficult and expensive to make (they contain rare metals platinum and palladium), these can’t eliminate all of the gas emissions, and they serve no function other than removing some of these gases.

The same can’t be said of the Kaalink device, a small, easy to use, piece of equipment that clips onto a car exhaust pipe to trap emissions. It works by stripping electrons from the exhaust gases, leaving them with a positive charge, so that they are then attracted to a negatively charged chamber within the device that holds particulates and larger molecules, but allows air and water vapor to filter through (meaning that the device does not affect engine performance).

The only problem is that converting the soot to ink isn’t something that happens automatically — it has to be done in a lab. While the idea of the device is great, the fact that users would have to empty their devices into a “soot deposit bank” at a specified location when full and would not personally get to use the rewards, could be discouraging to some.

That said, the ink production is a more sustainable process than traditional ink production, which is made by burning carbon (which itself creates even more emissions). And this has the potential to make a huge difference, since ink isn’t only used by artists — it’s used on a huge scale every day in book and newspaper printing, home printing, and on the packaging of almost every consumer product.

And this ink isn’t just a gimmick to trick people into being more environmentally friendly either — the ink itself is great. It conforms to all regulations for artists’ ink, and is currently available in 2 mm, 15 mm, 30 mm and 50 mm marker pens. Some artists have already used the ink for upwards of six months without complaint, and the good feedback goes beyond simply praising how environmentally friendly the ink is — artists also commented on the strong black color, thick texture of the ink and its ability to be used effectively on rough surfaces.

A final positive is that the device already works and is already in use, though only on a small scale. The team behind Kaalink has already captured around 220 pounds of emissions that would otherwise be polluting our atmosphere. Instead, they’ll become markers, screen printing ink and oil painting ink.

I think it’s kind of terrifying that we’ve let the world fall apart enough that a device like this one is necessary. However, since that’s the situation we’re in, I think it’s amazing that people like these scientists are coming up with such creative, innovative projects.

And right now, the idea of going out to the local soot deposit bank each week might seem completely alien — but before long, it’ll feel as natural as charging your phone, which not too long ago was a new idea too.