Hand held circular disc with Smoltek logo

Smoltek—from carbon nanofibers to mind-controlled robotic prostheses

Smoltek holds unique world patents for tech­nolo­gies that make mate­r­i­al engi­neer­ing on an atom­ic lev­el pos­si­ble. Smoltek has solu­tions that allow con­tin­ued minia­tur­iza­tion and increased per­for­mance of semi­con­duc­tors, con­tribute to car­bon-free steel pro­duc­tion and renew­able ener­gy stor­age, and enable mind con­trol of robot­ic pros­the­ses. This is a sto­ry of how Smoltek came to be.

Finn Gram­naes was in the oper­at­ing room when his daugh­ter was deliv­ered by planned cesare­an sec­tion. But instead of hear­ing the new­born announce its arrival into the world with a scream, he heard noth­ing. “There was a strange silence in the room,” Finn Gram­naes remem­bers. “It made me ter­ri­fied, and I froze.”

After what seemed like an eter­ni­ty, the girl began to scream. But still, some­thing wasn’t right. “I felt there was some­thing in the room that…,” says Finn Gram­naes with­out fin­ish­ing the sentence.

Even­tu­al­ly, he got to see his long-await­ed baby girl. He was filled with relief and love at the sight of her. She was won­der­ful. But he also real­ized that life had tak­en an unex­pect­ed turn. She had a severe­ly deformed right leg. The knee joint was miss­ing as well as the tib­ia, and the foot was twisted.

Life-changing decision

After more than six years of well-meant but unsuc­cess­ful attempts to recon­struct the knee joint and tib­ia, the girl’s par­ents faced a life-chang­ing deci­sion. Sac­ri­fice their daughter’s child­hood for more lengthy and painful attempts at recon­struc­tion. Or per­suade her to cut off the leg above the non-exis­tent knee joint.

After much delib­er­a­tion, they per­suad­ed the girl to ampu­tate. “But it did not go as expect­ed,” says her father. When he con­vinced his daugh­ter to ampu­tate, he didn’t know there were no knee joint pros­the­ses for chil­dren. “Instead, they hand­made some­thing, with basi­cal­ly a hinge,” he explains.

Fading color photograph of father and daughter on her bed.
Finn Gram­naes and his daugh­ter Lisa in 1991. Pho­to: Private.

Took matters into his own hands

The girl stum­bled and fell fre­quent­ly and often came home with abra­sions all over her body. “She was scared and inse­cure. It was men­tal­ly bad for her,” says her father. He expe­ri­enced ter­ri­ble remorse for “trick­ing” his daugh­ter into some­thing that didn’t work out. “We can fly to the moon, but we can’t make knee replace­ments for chil­dren,” he says.

Finn Gram­naes took mat­ters into his own hands. In the evenings, until late at night, and every week­end, he stud­ied anato­my and exper­i­ment­ed with designs that mim­ic a knee joint’s move­ments and force dis­tri­b­u­tion. His efforts paid off, and he could give his daugh­ter bet­ter and bet­ter prostheses.

Riveted together pieces of sheet metal illustrating the movements of a knee joint prosthesis
An ear­ly mod­el of a knee joint pros­the­sis devel­oped by Finn Gram­naes. Pho­to: Gramtec.

Arti­fi­cial knee joint

Finn Gram­naes con­tin­ued to devel­op his pros­the­sis. In April 1990, he applied for patents for his “arti­fi­cial knee joint” and an “arti­fi­cial foot.”

For more peo­ple to ben­e­fit from his pros­the­ses, he looked for busi­ness part­ners with good access to cap­i­tal and a large mar­ket. He found them in the Unit­ed States. Togeth­er they found­ed Cen­tu­ry XXII Inno­va­tions Inc. in Michi­gan, where many advanced con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ers serve the avi­a­tion indus­try. Finn Gram­naes became respon­si­ble for the devel­op­ment and indus­tri­al­iza­tion of his knee and foot prostheses.

To Sweden from Bangladesh

Portrait of Dr. Shafiq Kabir.
Dr. Shafiq Kabir

Mean­while, in Bangladesh, Moham­mad Shafiqul Kabir was study­ing sci­ence. Shafiqul—called Shafiq by friends—nurtured a desire to study abroad.

When his stud­ies at the uni­ver­si­ty were com­ing to an end, he tried to fig­ure out  what to do next. He con­tact­ed the Swedish Embassy to find out which master’s pro­grams might be of inter­est. “Swedish uni­ver­si­ties must have good pro­grams, and after­all, the Nobel prize was estab­lished in Swe­den,” Shafiq Kabir remembers.

A master’s pro­gram at the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy in Gothen­burg caught his inter­est. It focused on nan­otech­nol­o­gy. “I remem­ber think­ing: ‘There it is! I’ll give it a shot’,” says Shafiq Kabir and explains: “Nan­otech­nol­o­gy was new and very hyped at the time.”

Shafiq Kabir arrived in Swe­den on a sun­ny day in August 1998. Two years lat­er, in 2000, he grad­u­at­ed with a Mas­ter of Sci­ence degree.

Short­ly after that, Shafiq Kabir was offered doc­tor­al stu­dent employ­ment at the Depart­ment of Microtech­nol­o­gy and Nanoscience at the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy. He was delight­ed. Since child­hood, he had dreamed of doing research.

Shafiq Kabir began this new chap­ter in his life in the area of mol­e­c­u­lar elec­tron­ics but even­tu­al­ly moved to research on car­bon nanos­truc­tures. In par­tic­u­lar, he stud­ied how car­bon nanos­truc­tures can be made com­pat­i­ble with the man­u­fac­tur­ing process of semi­con­duc­tors. His super­vi­sor, Pro­fes­sor Peter Enoks­son, was pio­neer­ing and lead­ing in that area.

A hand holds a silicon wafer with a grid pattern of carbon nanofibres.
A 100 mm sil­i­con wafer with selec­tive­ly grown car­bon nanofibers. Pho­to: Paul Wennerholm.

Semiconductor

A semi­con­duc­tor is a mate­r­i­al that con­ducts elec­tric cur­rent, but not very well except in areas that are doped. By dop­ing adja­cent regions in dif­fer­ent ways, a tran­sis­tor is obtained. It’s an elec­tron­ic com­po­nent that can, among oth­er things, turn the pow­er on and off—making ones and zeros—which is fun­da­men­tal to all dig­i­tal technology.

An inte­grat­ed cir­cuit, or chip in every­day lan­guage, is obtained by mak­ing many tran­sis­tors on a sin­gle semi­con­duc­tor wafer and con­nect­ing them. A computer’s micro­proces­sor (CPU) and ran­dom access mem­o­ry (RAM) are exam­ples of chips.

Chips, and there­fore semi­con­duc­tors, are in every elec­tron­ic gad­get around you. Usu­al­ly, chips are made of sil­i­con using a tech­nol­o­gy called CMOS.

Nanostructures on semiconductors

Shafiq Kabir’s research at the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy was about using car­bon atoms to cre­ate small struc­tures direct­ly on CMOS semi­con­duc­tors. He had to tack­le many challenges.

One chal­lenge is that the struc­tures we are talk­ing about are extreme­ly small. They are mea­sured in nanome­tres (nm). That’s why they are called nanos­truc­tures. It is dif­fi­cult to under­stand how small they are. But imag­ine tak­ing one of your hairs and split­ting it length­wise, and then divid­ing each half again and so on until you have about 50,000 strips of your sin­gle hair strand. Each such strip is now about one nanome­tre in diam­e­ter. How can struc­tures that are so incred­i­bly small be built with pre­ci­sion? That was one of the ques­tions Shafiq Kabir searched for an answer to.

Anoth­er chal­lenge is that CMOS semi­con­duc­tors break down at the tem­per­a­tures need­ed to fab­ri­cate nanos­truc­tures. To make it pos­si­ble to fab­ri­cate nanos­truc­tures direct­ly on CMOS semi­con­duc­tors, the fab­ri­ca­tion tem­per­a­ture must be low­ered by sev­er­al hun­dred degrees. But how? That was anoth­er of Shafiq Kabir’s research questions.

Versatile carbon nanostructures

One form of a nanos­truc­ture, in par­tic­u­lar, attract­ed the inter­est of Shafiq Kabir: car­bon nanofibers (CNFs). They have many unique mate­r­i­al prop­er­ties that are inter­est­ing in all sorts of contexts.

Car­bon nanofibers are sur­pris­ing­ly durable and can be used as a sup­port or rein­force­ment bar (“rebar”) for mate­ri­als that become brit­tle at small sizes. They can also be used as minia­ture spac­ers between lay­ers of mate­ri­als. Or as nee­dles that make micro­scop­ic holes in membranes.

Car­bon nanofibers are very good at con­duct­ing heat—but only in one direc­tion. That prop­er­ty can be used to solve one of the biggest prob­lems as more and more tran­sis­tors are squeezed onto a chip: Heat dis­si­pa­tion. A chip can become mad­ly hot, short­en­ing its lifes­pan and increas­ing the risk of fail­ure. But car­bon nanofibers from the chip to the cap­sule that enclos­es the chip can effec­tive­ly dis­si­pate the heat.

And it’s not just heat that car­bon nanofibers con­duct effi­cient­ly, but also elec­tric­i­ty. That’s why they can be used as con­tacts and con­duc­tors on chips instead of sol­der­ing cop­per con­tacts and con­duc­tors. The good con­duc­tiv­i­ty, com­bined with their small size, also opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of con­nect­ing biosen­sors direct­ly to indi­vid­ual nerve cells.

Large surface area with small fiber

But above all, car­bon nanofibers arranged in rows and columns can be used to mul­ti­ply a sur­face area. Each car­bon nanofi­bre increas­es the sur­face area by ? times its diam­e­ter times its height. So a “for­est” of car­bon nanofibers will grow the sur­face area thou­sands of times.

Scan­ning elec­tron micro­scope image of car­bon nanofi­bres arranged in rows and columns with tremen­dous precision.

Imag­ine a square sur­face with a width and height of one mil­lime­ter. It can eas­i­ly hold 100,000 rows and as many columns of car­bon nanofibers that are 5 nanome­tres in diam­e­ter and 50 microm­e­ters in length. The sur­face area of those car­bon nanofibers increas­es the total sur­face area 7 855 times. In oth­er words, with car­bon nanofibers, you can eas­i­ly shrink an area of 88 × 88 mil­lime­ters to just 1 × 1 millimeters.

This abil­i­ty to increase the sur­face area many thou­sand­folds is ben­e­fi­cial in var­i­ous appli­ca­tions. For exam­ple, with car­bon nanofibers coat­ed with tita­ni­um on the sur­face of a tita­ni­um implant, the implant’s sur­face area increas­es, mak­ing it eas­i­er to grow togeth­er with bone. Anoth­er exam­ple is the minia­tur­iza­tion of capacitors.

Car­bon nanofi­bre capacitors

A capac­i­tor is an elec­tron­ic com­po­nent that tem­porar­i­ly stores ener­gy in the form of an elec­tric field between two sep­a­rat­ed con­duc­tive sur­faces. A “for­est” of car­bon nanofibers pro­vides a lot of sur­face areas between which ener­gy can be stored in a tiny space. There­fore, capac­i­tors with car­bon nanofibers can be made much small­er with­out degrad­ing their abil­i­ty to store ener­gy (capac­i­tance).

This is espe­cial­ly use­ful in chip appli­ca­tions, where capac­i­tors are need­ed very close to—or prefer­ably on—the chip to damp­en the noise that results when thou­sands of tran­sis­tors rapid­ly turn the pow­er on and off to make ones and zeros. The damp­en­ing effect comes from the fact that it takes a lit­tle while to charge and dis­charge a capacitor.

The chip sits on a circuit board with the bottom facing up.
Capac­i­tors mount­ed on the under­side of a chip.

The birth of Smoltek

How­ev­er, all these excit­ing appli­ca­tions of car­bon nanofibers require the abil­i­ty to man­u­fac­ture them to a spe­cif­ic diam­e­ter and length, place them with extreme pre­ci­sion, and do so at a tem­per­a­ture that does not dam­age the sub­strate. How to achieve this was the focus of Shafiq Kabir’s research.

His research efforts bore fruit, and in 2005, while fin­ish­ing his Ph.D. the­sis, he start­ed Smoltek to devel­op the meth­ods fur­ther to make them avail­able to the indus­try. He was accom­pa­nied by his Ph.D. advi­sor, Pro­fes­sor Peter Enoksson.

Professor meets his adept

Dr. Peter Enoksson

When Peter Enoks­son was offered a chair at the Depart­ment of Microtech­nol­o­gy and Nanoscience at the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy, he glad­ly accept­ed the pro­fes­sor­ship. He start­ed in Octo­ber 2001.

He came to work close­ly with Ste­fan Bengts­son (now Pres­i­dent and CEO of the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy) and Eleanor Camp­bell (who cur­rent­ly holds a Chair of Chem­istry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh). Their com­mon area of inter­est was car­bon nanos­truc­tures. One of the Ph.D. stu­dents who also worked on this was Shafiq Kabir.

“Shafiq was very much into apply­ing ‘help lay­ers’ to con­trol where car­bon nanos­truc­tures grow and to make them faster and more con­trolled,” Peter Enoks­son remem­bers. Peter Enoks­son became Shafiq Kabir’s supervisor.

“We saw many appli­ca­tions of tech­nol­o­gy and thought it would take over every­thing,” recalls Peter Enoks­son. They called it “the new electronics.”

But they also real­ized that it had to be made com­pat­i­ble with CMOS—the pre­dom­i­nant man­u­fac­tur­ing method for semi­con­duc­tor devices. It had to be pos­si­ble to man­u­fac­ture the car­bon nanos­truc­tures at tem­per­a­tures that CMOS can withstand—which is much low­er than need­ed to cre­ate car­bon nanos­truc­tures. So this became the focus of their fur­ther research.

Huge in few years

When Shafiq Kabir lat­er found­ed Smoltek, Peter Enoks­son, Ste­fan Bengts­son, and Eleanor Camp­bell became the company’s sci­en­tif­ic advi­sors. And when Smoltek raised seed cap­i­tal from Chalmers Inno­va­tion (now Chalmers Ven­ture), a busi­ness incu­ba­tor asso­ci­at­ed with the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy, Peter Enoks­son was involved in invest­ing in the company.

“Shafiq and I thought Smoltek would be huge in just a few years,” says Peter Enoks­son with a laugh. Because it turned out not to be as easy as they thought. Despite unprece­dent­ed results and excel­lent prop­er­ties, it was dif­fi­cult to con­vince the elec­tron­ics industry.

After a few years, it was high time to bring indus­try expe­ri­ence to the board of direc­tors. The ques­tion went to Finn Gramnaes—the father who built a knee pros­the­sis to help his daugh­ter and then took it to the world market.

Time for industrial experience

In the same year as Shafiq Kabir began his doc­tor­al stud­ies, the com­pa­ny that Finn Gram­naes co-found­ed in the US was sold to the Ice­landic pros­thet­ics man­u­fac­tur­er Össur. Finn Gramnae’s com­pa­ny had received many takeover offers. Even­tu­al­ly, the bids were so high that some of Finn’s senior part­ners decid­ed it was time to sell.

Finn was now with­out a job but with a good deal of mon­ey in his pock­et. He spent a lot of time in Spain, played golf, went to cock­tail par­ties, and tried to live the life expect­ed of some­one who had made an exit and was finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent. But some­thing was miss­ing in his life.

Product image showing four different versions of The Total Knee®.
Finn Gram­naes cre­at­ed the sev­en-axis knee pros­the­ses that are sold world­wide under the name The Total Knee®.

Searching for meaning in life

Finn Gram­naes want­ed some­thing tan­gi­ble to do—something that helped oth­ers and gave him mean­ing in life. So he start­ed to help oth­er inno­va­tors and entre­pre­neurs devel­op their businesses.

Finn Gram­naes had some good con­tacts in the finan­cial world. They offered their con­tacts in the hope of shar­ing risk with some­one with mon­ey. In this way, Finn came to sit on the boards of a wide range of businesses.

“I was look­ing for a com­pa­ny that real­ly could con­tribute to human­i­ty,” Finn Gram­naes says. But years passed with­out him find­ing the “right” com­pa­ny. He did, how­ev­er, learn some hard lessons.

But one day, he found on his desk a doc­u­ment that would change everything.

It clicked

“One day, some­one gave me a text by Smoltek,” Finn Gram­naes says. “It ‘clicked’ when I read it, and I thought, ‘Wow! There it is.’”

Smoltek had a pend­ing patent that cov­ered many appli­ca­tion areas. There were many thoughts and visions about what was pos­si­ble to do with it. “I saw the pos­si­bil­i­ties and was extreme­ly fas­ci­nat­ed,” says Finn Gram­naes. “Smoltek’s tech­nol­o­gy has the poten­tial to solve many of the prob­lems I encoun­tered dur­ing my jour­ney devel­op­ing pros­the­ses.” He adds: “If I hadn’t made that jour­ney, which made me real­ize that there is a lack of advanced tech­nol­o­gy in sev­er­al areas, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have fall­en for Smoltek.”

So when Chalmers Inno­va­tion asked him if he would con­sid­er join­ing Smoltek’s board, he accept­ed with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Even­tu­al­ly, he and Peter Enoks­son bought out Chalmers Inno­va­tion and became the company’s largest shareholders.

Business concept

Smoltek’s busi­ness con­cept is to license the tech­nol­o­gy in var­i­ous degrees of refine­ment. From the most basic lev­el, that can be used in indus­tri­al research projects, to fin­ished appli­ca­tions, such as car­bon nanofi­bre capacitors.

The busi­ness mod­el is to seek part­ner­ships with com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions that want to eval­u­ate or use Smoltek’s technology.

The focus now and in the future will be on cre­at­ing more and deep­er rela­tion­ships with part­ners. And not least broad­en the search for partners.

Working with a conservative industry

Until recent­ly, Smoltek has only focused on the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try, but since the for­ma­tion in autumn 2020 of the sub­sidiary Smoltek Inno­va­tion, the search for part­ners in new sec­tors has gath­ered pace—not least in green ener­gy and green industry.

There are two rea­sons for Smoltek’s broad­en­ing. First, Smoltek’s core tech­nol­o­gy, for which it holds a world patent, is com­pre­hen­sive and can be used in many and diverse indus­tries far beyond the semi­con­duc­tor industry.

The sec­ond rea­son is that the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try is very con­ser­v­a­tive and cau­tious. It is not sur­pris­ing. Com­pa­nies in the indus­try are mak­ing huge invest­ments, count­ed in bil­lions of dol­lars, which increase dra­mat­i­cal­ly with each new gen­er­a­tion of CPUs and oth­er semi­con­duc­tor com­po­nents. There­fore, com­pa­nies are extreme­ly cau­tious about what tech­nol­o­gy they bring in. It has to be estab­lished and already proved itself in the real world.

The last rea­son is also why Smoltek has cho­sen to focus on car­bon nanofi­bre capac­i­tors. It gives Smoltek a chance to show what the tech­nol­o­gy is capa­ble of, in a way vis­i­ble to the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try, but with no risk for them.

Car­bon nanofi­bre met­al-insu­la­tion-met­al (CNF-MIM) capac­i­tor only 38 µm thick.

Battle-testing the technology

Many chips have attached capac­i­tors that com­pete with con­nec­tors for space. If the capac­i­tors can be made small­er, the chip can be made small­er or have more connectors.

Smoltek’s strat­e­gy is to help the world’s largest capac­i­tor man­u­fac­tur­ers use car­bon nanofibers to pro­duce capac­i­tors that take up less sur­face area and, more impor­tant­ly, less height than the minia­tur­ized capac­i­tors avail­able today.

In this way, Smoltek’s tech­nol­o­gy is bat­tle-test­ed in a way that is “harm­less” to the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try but vis­i­ble to them. In par­al­lel, Smoltek talks with all major com­pa­nies in the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try to con­vince them to dare the leap.

Next step

Once the car­bon nanofi­bre capac­i­tors have proven them­selves as dis­crete com­po­nents, the next step will be to move them into the chip. The final goal is to build them direct­ly on the sil­i­con. Smoltek already has the tech­nol­o­gy for this.

Once on sil­i­con, Smoltek can help the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try with many oth­er things too. For exam­ple, cre­at­ing chips with mul­ti­ple sil­i­con lay­ers where Smoltek’s car­bon nanofibers can act as minia­ture spac­ers, sol­der joint rein­force­ment bars, or elec­tri­cal con­duc­tors. Smoltek’s tech­nol­o­gy can also dis­si­pate the heat gen­er­at­ed inside the chip, there­by mak­ing cool­ing easier.

A woman stands with her arms outstretched and her face turned towards the sky in a sea of green ferns.
Clean­tech enables car­bon foot­print reduc­tion. Pho­to: Kourosh Qaffari.

New opportunities in the green industry and energy sectors

Smoltek has focused on the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try from the very begin­ning. It came nat­u­ral­ly; Shafiq’s research was about cre­at­ing car­bon nanos­truc­tures on CMOS semi­con­duc­tors, and the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try needs new solu­tions to keep dou­bling the num­ber of tran­sis­tors every two years.

But Smoltek’s tech­nol­o­gy has many appli­ca­tions far beyond the semi­con­duc­tor indus­try. There­fore, Smoltek has moved the semi­con­duc­tor endeav­or into its own busi­ness unit, called Smoltek Semi, and added a new busi­ness unit, called Smoltek Inno­va­tion, with the mis­sion to pur­sue oth­er applications.

Just as Smoltek Semi has strate­gi­cal­ly cho­sen to focus on car­bon nanofi­bre capac­i­tors, Smoltek Inno­va­tion has strate­gi­cal­ly placed hydro­gen pro­duc­tion in its focal point. Hydro­gen has emerged as the key to mak­ing heavy indus­try car­bon-free and stor­ing renew­able ener­gy. Two appli­ca­tion areas of imme­di­ate vital importance.

Fossil-free steel

In heavy indus­try, projects are under­way to reduce their use of fos­sil fuels and green­house gas emissions.

In Swe­den, for exam­ple, the min­ing com­pa­ny LKAB, the steel man­u­fac­tur­er SSAB and the ener­gy com­pa­ny Vat­ten­fall are work­ing on a joint project to devel­op fos­sil-free steel. Hydro­gen gas has an essen­tial func­tion in this con­text; the gas replaces coal and coke in steel production.

The tech­nol­o­gy can reduce car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from the Swedish indus­try by a third, and in the future, help reduce emis­sions from iron and steel pro­duc­tion worldwide.

How­ev­er, there is a catch. If the steel is to be fos­sil-free, the hydro­gen must be pro­duced in a renew­able way.

A steelworker stands next to a blast furnace.
The steel indus­try accounts for a large share of today’s emis­sions of the green­house gas car­bon diox­ide. Pho­to: Katery­na Babaie­va.

The dilemma of intermittent power supply

Hydro­gen can be pro­duced by run­ning elec­tric­i­ty through water. In this process, water, con­sist­ing of two hydro­gen atoms and one oxy­gen atom, is splin­tered into hydro­gen gas and oxy­gen gas.

But for this hydro­gen pro­duc­tion to be fos­sil-free, the elec­tric­i­ty used must also be fos­sil-free and prefer­ably pro­duced from renew­able sources. Thus, the pro­duc­tion of hydro­gen must use elec­tric­i­ty pro­duced by solar, wind, or water.

Such elec­tric­i­ty is not always in con­stant sup­ply; the sun goes into the clouds, the wind slack­ens, and water reser­voirs dry up. So the process of pro­duc­ing hydro­gen must work in the pres­ence of an inter­mit­tent pow­er supply.

There are two main ways to pro­duce hydro­gen by run­ning elec­tric­i­ty through water.

Electrolysis the old way

The old­est and most con­ven­tion­al way of pro­duc­ing hydro­gen is alka­line elec­trol­y­sis. In this process, lye (potas­si­um hydrox­ide or sodi­um hydrox­ide), which is high­ly cor­ro­sive, is added, and elec­tric­i­ty is applied through two elec­trodes made of a nick­el alloy. These elec­trodes are sep­a­rat­ed by a mem­brane which allows hydrox­ide ions (OH-) to flow through, on their way from one elec­trode to the oth­er, while sep­a­rat­ing the hydro­gen gas pro­duced at one elec­trode from the oxy­gen gas pro­duced at the other.

Schematic of alkaline electrolysis.
Alka­line electrolysis.

This tech­nique has sev­er­al dis­ad­van­tages. Main­ly is the low effi­cien­cy. The ener­gy val­ue of the hydro­gen gen­er­at­ed is only 65% of the ener­gy sup­plied. In addi­tion, the method works poor­ly when the avail­abil­i­ty of elec­tric­i­ty varies.

Electrolysis with carbon nanofibers

A bet­ter tech­nique is poly­mer elec­trolyte mem­brane (PEM) elec­trol­y­sis. Its main advan­tages are high effi­cien­cy, cur­rent­ly upwards of 80%, and expect­ed to reach 86% by 2030. In addi­tion, the method works even when the elec­tric­i­ty is fluc­tu­at­ing, mak­ing it suit­able for use with renew­able ener­gy sources such as solar and wind.

Schematic of polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolysis.
Poly­mer elec­trolyte mem­brane (PEM) electrolysis.

But the elec­trodes immersed in water on either side of the mem­brane must be coat­ed with the scarce and pre­cious met­als plat­inum and irid­i­um. For com­par­i­son, gold is 40 times more abun­dant in the Earth’s crust than irid­i­um. The annu­al pro­duc­tion is just three tonnes.

This is where Smoltek’s tech­nol­o­gy comes in.

Smoltek’s tech­nol­o­gy allows par­ti­cles of the rare and pre­cious met­als to be placed at the tip of car­bon nanofibers, which in turn are placed in a way that max­i­mizes expo­sure. In this way, the elec­trodes can be made up to three times more effi­cient while reduc­ing the amount of pre­cious met­al need­ed. This, in turn, can lead to sav­ings of up to 30 per­cent for hydro­gen pro­duc­tion plants.

Energy storage with carbon nanofibers

The same method can be used for ener­gy storage.

A sore point for renew­ables like solar and wind is the dif­fi­cul­ty of stor­ing the ener­gy pro­duced. Solar ener­gy can be stored in bat­ter­ies for short peri­ods, but to save the ener­gy pro­duced dur­ing the many hours of sun­shine in sum­mer for the dark and cold sea­son requires an entire­ly dif­fer­ent stor­age tech­nol­o­gy. This is where hydro­gen comes in.

When renew­able sources pro­duce excess elec­tric­i­ty, the sur­plus is con­vert­ed into hydro­gen stored for lat­er use. The oxy­gen emit­ted as a by-prod­uct is released or used for var­i­ous purposes.

The hydro­gen thus cre­at­ed can then be used in fuel cells. They pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty from hydro­gen, with only water vapor as a by-product.

Two buses in city traffic marked with "H2 Hydrogen"
The by-prod­uct of hydro­gen fuel cells is water vapour.

One father and two godfathers

Portrait of Shaiq Kabir.
Dr. Shafiq Kabir

Smoltek was found­ed in 2005 by Shafiq Kabir. It is his research and inno­va­tions that are the foun­da­tion on which Smoltek is built. He left Smoltek in Jan­u­ary 2013 to try his wings as a con­sul­tant but returned in Octo­ber 2015. In Jan­u­ary 2021, he tran­si­tioned to an advi­so­ry role to free up time for his Exec­u­tive MBA stud­ies and per­son­al projects.

Portrait of Professor Peter Enoksson.a
Dr. Peter Enoksson

Peter Enoks­son, Pro­fes­sor of Microtech­nol­o­gy and Nanoscience at the Chalmers Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy, has been on board all the way. His jour­ney began even before Smoltek was found­ed. At his depart­ment, Shafiq Kabir received his master’s degree, and it was under his super­vi­sion, Shafiq Kabir earned his Ph.D. Peter Enoks­son con­tributes knowl­edge, net­works, and not least con­tacts with promis­ing researchers in the field.

Finn Gram­naes

Finn Gram­naes also got on board ear­ly. When Smoltek’s time in the incu­ba­tor was over, he and Peter Enkos­son bought out Chalmers Inno­va­tion and became the company’s largest shareholders.

As active own­ers, Finn Gram­naes and Peter Enkos­son have tak­en on the task of lift­ing their gaze to see the for­est for the trees. And what they are glimps­ing at the end of the for­est is an envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly prod­uct line—made pos­si­ble with Smoltek’s technology.

Robotic prosthetic legs

In the ear­ly 2000s, when Finn Gram­naes was still look­ing for some­thing mean­ing­ful to do, and his daugh­ter Lisa had just grad­u­at­ed with a bachelor’s degree in mechan­ics, the two began devel­op­ing an arti­fi­cial leg. Their ambi­tious goal was to cre­ate a pros­the­sis that even bet­ter mim­ics human move­ment using advanced sen­sor tech­nol­o­gy and elec­tric motor technology.

“We par­tic­i­pat­ed in some uni­ver­si­ty projects and learned bit by bit how to build a robot­ic leg pros­the­sis,” Finn Gram­naes says. They were even­tu­al­ly able to patent an advanced robot­ic pros­thet­ic leg.

But the effort was in vain. The pros­the­sis could not be made; the tech­nol­o­gy wasn’t com­mer­cial­ly avail­able. “We were way ahead of our time,” Finn Gram­naes says, adding, “The bat­tery tech­nol­o­gy was not devel­oped. There were not the kind of motors that were need­ed. Micro­proces­sors need­ed to be small­er and more pow­er­ful. In par­tic­u­lar, sen­sors were need­ed that could detect dif­fer­ent move­ment pat­terns and sur­faces under real-life conditions.”

Sketch of an electric knee joint prosthesis.
Sketch from the patent appli­ca­tion for an elec­tric knee joint pros­the­sis by Finn Gramnaes.

Around the corner: Biosensors

Short­ly after Finn Gram­naes real­ized that the advanced tech­nol­o­gy he need­ed was not avail­able, some­one gave him the text writ­ten by Smoltek—the one that made him cry out, “Wow! There it is.”

What clicked when he read about their tech­nol­o­gy was the poten­tial to solve many of the prob­lems he and his daugh­ter had iden­ti­fied. One exam­ple is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing biosen­sors. Car­bon nanofibers are sig­nif­i­cant­ly small­er than cells. There­fore, they can be used to con­nect indi­vid­ual neu­rons to elec­tron­ics elec­tri­cal­ly. Some­thing nec­es­sary to con­trol a robot­ic pros­thet­ic leg with only the mind.

Pre­cise­ly this, cre­at­ing a tiny chip with car­bon fiber sen­sors, sig­nal ampli­fi­ca­tion, and an elec­tri­cal inter­face, is among the things Smoltek Inno­va­tion is look­ing at right now, in 2021. So maybe tomorrow’s par­ents, who in the past had to per­suade their chil­dren to remove a body part, can instead com­fort their child with the fact that there are robot­ic pros­the­ses that, thanks to Smoltek, can be con­trolled with the pow­er of thought.

May the force be with them.

Related insights from Smoltek

Ola Tiverman, President Smoltek Semi

Operational update on the activities in Smoltek Semi

A main goal for Smoltek Semi is to develop an industrial process for mass production of discrete CNF-MIM capacitors at contract manufacturers (foundry), including a specially designed machine for large-scale production of carbon nanofibers.

Breaking barriers: The future

This is the third and last article in a series of three in which Smoltek founder and strategic advisor Shafiq Kabir share his personal thoughts on nanotechnology opportunities. In the previous two articles, he has addressed both the hype and the reality of carbon nanotechnology. In this last article, he looks into the future. He discusses how carbon nanotechnology will unleash the power of the internet of everything.