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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.


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.

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