Most certainly not to be confused with those Yes & Know activity booklets that came with an orange-capped “invisible pen” and kept kids merrily preoccupied during pretty much every single family road trip taken in the 1980s, Living Ink is a magical and sometimes invisible ink of not-so-mysterious origin that, when applied to paper, appears, disappears and then gradually reappears again days later.
Discovered somewhat by happy accident by a team of Colorado-based researchers while attempting to develop an eco-friendly alternative to traditional petroleum-based inks, Living Ink — described as the world’s first “time-lapse ink” — allows doodlers of all ages and abilities to grow their artistic creations in a snazzy so-called Greenhouse that's really just a translucent picture frame. The team behind Living Ink describes their creation as “gardening on paper.”
Wizardry you say?
Not quite — it’s just simple science.
Living Ink is composed of a potent brew of water, eukaryotic microalgae, cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) and chlorophyll, the substance that renders completed drawings a blazing shade of green when fully grown. The Living Ink system comes with two pens filled with different types of algal ink. Both inks fade away 10 minutes after making contact with paper but reappear at different rates: the pink-hued Fast Ink starts to grow after one to two days while the blue-colored Slow Ink begins showing after three to four days.
The growing process takes place with the aforementioned Greenhouse, which is basically a portable translucent picture frame that’s coated with agar, a substance that provides the ink-algae with growth-promoting nutrients. When inserted into a wooden base and left in a sunny spot (the algae also requires ample sunlight), the drawing sketched out a couple of days prior begins to slowly but surely materialize.
When the drawing in question is fully “grown” and removed from the Greenhouse, the algae eventually dies but the green-colored masterwork remains.
For example, let’s say you want to draw a house. You sketch out (a black pencil is also provided) the structure and illustrate it using the Fast Ink while adding details around it with the Slow Ink. A couple of days later, the house itself appears on paper. And a couple of days after that, the trees, grass and a smiling face peering out from a window, all drawn with the Slow Ink pen, finally materialize.
The Living Ink team describe the myriad joys of doodling with algae:
It all started with using it as a birthday card for Scott’s [scientist and Living Ink co-founder, Scott Fulbright] grandma. The birthday message revealed itself over several days, and she absolutely loved it (earning him several cheek squeezes). Since then, we’ve put Living Ink into the hands of all types of people, and they’ve shown us that all it takes is some imagination to make something really cool. We’ve seen artists make gorgeous pieces that leverage the time-lapse capability to make their art come to life. We’ve had our co-worker use it as a way to make us laugh. We’ve had a middle school class use it as a fun way to learn science. Best of all, we’ve seen young love blossom as a result of a sweet message that gets sweeter over a few days.
From the sounds of it, Living Ink, which recently made a splash at SXSW Eco and has won various awards and accolades including a spot in the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, makes for the ultimate grow-it-yourself holiday gift for kids and grown-up science geeks alike. Just think of it as next-gen take on that mesmerizing stocking stuffer of yesterday, the Mystical Crystal Garden. Remember those? And maybe a bit of Chia Pet thrown in. There's a bit of a throwback quality to Living Ink — it's simple, science-y and rewards those who wait. Algae-powered ink pens wouldn't have been too out of place on "Mr. Wizard" or on the shelves of the (now defunct) mall store, Imaginarium.
Alas, Living Ink (completely safe for kids, by the way) just launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. And, if the $15,000 goal is met, pre-orders of Living Ink kits won’t ship until June/July of next year.
Whatever the case, post-Christmas shipping dates shouldn't deter those interested in creating one-of-a-kind artwork out of algae. As with the concept itself, good things come to those who wait.
Basic kits, which include two (Fast and Slow) Living Ink pens, 5 sheets of high-quality paper, black pencil, instructions and the Greenhouse growing environment start at $40. For a starting pledge of $60, you can get your hands on an “Artist’s Edition” which includes all of the above plus paintbrushes and two pots of paintable Living Ink. Also available for pre-order are a Teacher’s Kit and an Art Party Kit.
Separate from the Kickstarter campaign, the Living Ink team is also hard at work developing an algae-based printer ink.
Described as “the first step in weaning the world off of regular ink and moving towards a safe and renewable solution,” Living Ink may not provide the same instant backseat distraction as those Invisible Ink books that so many of us had as kids. However, those with a gardener’s patience, a knack at doodling and a natural sense of curiosity will likely be left spellbound by this microalgae-fueled marriage of art and scientific innovation.