The incredible chemistry powering your smartphone | Cathy Mulzer

The incredible chemistry powering your smartphone | Cathy Mulzer

Translator: Ivana Korom
Reviewer: Joanna Pietrulewicz When I waltzed off to high school
with my new Nokia phone, I thought I just had
the new, coolest replacement for my old pink princess walkie-talkie. Except now, my friends and I
could text or talk to each other wherever we were, instead of pretending, when we were running around
each other’s backyards. Now, I’ll be honest. Back then, I didn’t think a lot
about how these devices were made. They tended to show up
on Christmas morning, so maybe they were made
by the elves in Santa’s workshop. Let me ask you a question. Who do you think the real elves
that make these devices are? If I ask a lot of the people I know, they would say it’s the hoodie-wearing
software engineers in Silicon Valley, hacking away at code. But a lot has to happen to these devices before they’re ready for any kind of code. These devices start at the atomic level. So if you ask me, the real elves are the chemists. That’s right, I said the chemists. Chemistry is the hero
of electronic communications. And my goal today is to convince you to agree with me. OK, let’s start simple, and take a look inside
these insanely addictive devices. Because without chemistry, what is an information
superhighway that we love, would just be a really expensive,
shiny paperweight. Chemistry enables all of these layers. Let’s start at the display. How do you think we get
those bright, vivid colors that we love so much? Well, I’ll tell you. There’s organic polymers
embedded within the display, that can take electricity
and turn it into the blue, red and green that we enjoy in our pictures. What if we move down to the battery? Now there’s some intense research. How do we take the chemical principles
of traditional batteries and pair it with new,
high surface area electrodes, so we can pack more charge
in a smaller footprint of space, so that we could power
our devices all day long, while we’re taking selfies, without having to recharge our batteries or sit tethered to an electrical outlet? What if we go to the adhesives
that bind it all together, so that it could withstand
our frequent usage? After all, as a millennial, I have to take my phone out
at least 200 times a day to check it, and in the process,
drop it two to three times. But what are the real brains
of these devices? What makes them work
the way that we love them so much? Well that all has to do
with electrical components and circuitry that are tethered
to a printed circuit board. Or maybe you prefer a biological metaphor — the motherboard,
you might have heard of that. Now, the printed circuit board
doesn’t really get talked about a lot. And I’ll be honest,
I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because
it’s the least sexy layer and it’s hidden beneath all of those
other sleek-looking layers. But it’s time to finally give this
Clark Kent layer the Superman-worthy praise it deserves. And so I ask you a question. What do you think
a printed circuit board is? Well, consider a metaphor. Think about the city that you live in. You have all these points of interest
that you want to get to: your home, your work, restaurants, a couple of Starbucks on every block. And so we build roads
that connect them all together. That’s what a printed circuit board is. Except, instead of having
things like restaurants, we have transistors on chips, capacitors, resistors, all of these electrical components that need to find a way
to talk to each other. And so what are our roads? Well, we build tiny copper wires. So the next question is, how do we make these tiny copper wires? They’re really small. Could it be that we go
to the hardware store, pick up a spool of copper wire, get some wire cutters, a little clip-clip, saw it all up and then, bam —
we have our printed circuit board? No way. These wires are way too small for that. And so we have to rely
on our friend: chemistry. Now, the chemical process
to make these tiny copper wires is seemingly simple. We start with a solution of positively charged copper spheres. We then add to it an insulating
printed circuit board. And we feed those
positively charged spheres negatively charged electrons by adding formaldehyde to the mix. So you might remember formaldehyde. Really distinct odor, used to preserve frogs in biology class. Well it turns out it can do
a lot more than just that. And it’s a really key component to making these tiny copper wires. You see, the electrons
on formaldehyde have a drive. They want to jump over to those
positively charged copper spheres. And that’s all because of a process
known as redox chemistry. And when that happens, we can take these positively
charged copper spheres and turn them into bright, shiny, metallic and conductive copper. And once we have conductive copper, now we’re cooking with gas. And we can get all
of those electrical components to talk to each other. So thank you once again to chemistry. And let’s take a thought and think about how far
we’ve come with chemistry. Clearly, in electronic communications, size matters. So let’s think about
how we can shrink down our devices, so that we can go from our 1990s
Zack Morris cell phone to something a little bit more sleek, like the phones of today
that can fit in our pockets. Although, let’s be real here: absolutely nothing can fit
into ladies’ pants pockets, if you can find a pair of pants
that has pockets. (Laughter) And I don’t think chemistry
can help us with that problem. But more important
than shrinking the actual device, how do we shrink
the circuitry inside of it, and shrink it by 100 times, so that we can take the circuitry
from the micron scale all the way down to the nanometer scale? Because, let’s face it, right now we all want
more powerful and faster phones. Well, more power and faster
requires more circuitry. So how do we do this? It’s not like we have some magic
electromagnetic shrink ray, like professor Wayne Szalinski used
in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” to shrink his children. On accident, of course. Or do we? Well, actually, in the field, there’s a process
that’s pretty similar to that. And it’s name is photolithography. In photolithography,
we take electromagnetic radiation, or what we tend to call light, and we use it to shrink down
some of that circuitry, so that we could cram more of it
into a really small space. Now, how does this work? Well, we start with a substrate that has a light-sensitive film on it. We then cover it with a mask
that has a pattern on top of it of fine lines and features that are going to make the phone work
the way that we want it to. We then expose a bright light
and shine it through this mask, which creates a shadow
of that pattern on the surface. Now, anywhere that the light
can get through the mask, it’s going to cause
a chemical reaction to occur. And that’s going to burn the image
of that pattern into the substrate. So the question you’re probably asking is, how do we go from a burned image to clean fine lines and features? And for that, we have to use
a chemical solution called the developer. Now the developer is special. What it can do is take
all of the nonexposed areas and remove them selectively, leaving behind clean
fine lines and features, and making our miniaturized devices work. So, we’ve used chemistry now
to build up our devices, and we’ve used it
to shrink down our devices. So I’ve probably convinced you
that chemistry is the true hero, and we could wrap it up there. (Applause) Hold on, we’re not done. Not so fast. Because we’re all human. And as a human, I always want more. And so now I want to think
about how to use chemistry to extract more out of a device. Right now, we’re being told
that we want something called 5G, or the promised
fifth generation of wireless. Now, you might have heard of 5G in commercials
that are starting to appear. Or maybe some of you even experienced it in the 2018 winter Olympics. What I’m most excited about for 5G is that, when I’m late,
running out of the house to catch a plane, I can download movies
onto my device in 40 seconds as opposed to 40 minutes. But once true 5G is here, it’s going to be a lot more
than how many movies we can put on our device. So the question is,
why is true 5G not here? And I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s pretty easy to answer. It’s just plain hard to do. You see, if you use
those traditional materials and copper to build 5G devices, the signal can’t make it
to its final destination. Traditionally, we use
really rough insulating layers to support copper wires. Think about Velcro fasteners. It’s the roughness of the two pieces
that make them stick together. That’s pretty important
if you want to have a device that’s going to last longer than it takes you to rip it out of the box and start installing
all of your apps on it. But this roughness causes a problem. You see, at the high speeds for 5G the signal has to travel
close to that roughness. And it makes it get lost
before it reaches its final destination. Think about a mountain range. And you have a complex system of roads
that goes up and over it, and you’re trying
to get to the other side. Don’t you agree with me that it would probably take
a really long time, and you would probably get lost, if you had to go up and down
all of the mountains, as opposed to if you just
drilled a flat tunnel that could go straight on through? Well it’s the same thing
in our 5G devices. If we could remove this roughness, then we can send the 5G signal straight on through uninterrupted. Sounds pretty good, right? But hold on. Didn’t I just tell you
that we needed that roughness to keep the device together? And if we remove it,
we’re in a situation where now the copper isn’t going to stick
to that underlying substrate. Think about building
a house of Lego blocks, with all of the nooks and crannies
that latch together, as opposed to smooth building blocks. Which of the two is going to have
more structural integrity when the two-year-old comes
ripping through the living room, trying to play Godzilla
and knock everything down? But what if we put glue
on those smooth blocks? And that’s what
the industry is waiting for. They’re waiting for the chemists
to design new, smooth surfaces with increased inherent adhesion for some of those copper wires. And when we solve this problem, and we will solve the problem, and we’ll work
with physicists and engineers to solve all of the challenges of 5G, well then the number of applications
is going to skyrocket. So yeah, we’ll have things
like self-driving cars, because now our data networks
can handle the speeds and the amount of information
required to make that work. But let’s start to use imagination. I can imagine going into a restaurant
with a friend that has a peanut allergy, taking out my phone, waving it over the food and having the food tell us a really important answer to a question — deadly or safe to consume? Or maybe our devices will get so good at processing information about us, that they’ll become
like our personal trainers. And they’ll know the most efficient way
for us to burn calories. I know come November, when I’m trying to burn off
some of these pregnancy pounds, I would love a device
that could tell me how to do that. I really don’t know
another way of saying it, except chemistry is just cool. And it enables all of these
electronic devices. So the next time you send a text
or take a selfie, think about all those atoms
that are hard at work and the innovation that came before them. Who knows, maybe even some of you
listening to this talk, perhaps even on your mobile device, will decide that you too
want to play sidekick to Captain Chemistry, the true hero of electronic devices. Thank you for your attention, and thank you chemistry. (Applause)


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    It's amazing how much our smartphones can do and how they work. I just feel like I'm not using it for its full potential.

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    Nothing against the speaker but the majority of the talk felt somewhat unnatural. Every sentence was packed with some sort of key word, e.g. "You see", "Don't you agree", "Now X is special" + a joke every few sentences to keep the audience interested. It was too perfect in a sense, not what I'm used to from a TED talk.

    Besides, do we really need 5G to fuel our excessive consumer needs? To share even more data with companies and governments while we still don't even have proper privacy protection in place? Downloading entire movies in seconds on our way to a plane is a luxury that we shouldn't take for granted, especially with our climate crisis in mind.

    I guess I just miss the old Nokia days where the phones already had long lasting batteries and could withstand being dropped without a cracked display. With every new invention comes a certain responsibility. If we continue blindly throwing new tech at consumers we end up with more and more problems in the future. Today's smart phones have already turned us into greedy, anti social data goldmines.

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    Lily Val

    Wow exactly ! I noticed that a mother board & earth towns borders etc look like a mother board from an above aerial view from airplane window view. I chose Chemistry in 10th grade. I love chem it is the root of all indeed ! Super interesting subject. Chemistry of love for instance ! It is 1 of the most amazing sciences. I loved the periodic table when 1st saw it in class ! It was easy enough for me to understand this subject. I love mixing juices, food cooked already or a recipe. music mash ups, etc. Chemistry is just a recipe if a mixture of chemicals or substances.

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    She's got real high hopes for what her cell phone will do, with just 5G….
    5G is basically just a new standardized method of transferring data, you cannot use it to spectrum analyze your food, or monitor your body's chemistry… She's going to be so disapointed 🙁

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    This isn't a talking lady, it's a bunch of electrons dropping down energy levels, seen through a screen of dancing carbon rings.

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    Alice Gao

    I thought you didn’t want 5G because it’s made in China lollll also when searching for 5G on YouTube it’s all bad news about it. Who’s brainwashing people now?!!!

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    David Popolizio

    Cool but why do you have to pair up referring to the smartphone with some kind of praise like "the reds blues and greens we enjoy," "the displays we love so much." Its actually every single time

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    fungi are orders of magnitude more complex and high-tech than our man-made tech. fungi and bio-tech are also innate and sustainable. also free.

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    Javeed Ali

    The explanation was ok but the lady won my heart bcz i feel that she is soo cute & pretty that I'm expecting my future wife to be like her. Let's have some noise for desi single boy. #cathy cutiee pie identical to my future wife.

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    Not very accurate statement. 1:00 The real elfs of smartphones are the child labor force in Gongo, digging up rare earth metals to be processed into chips and batteries.

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    Jack Linde

    You want to know who the elves that are making your phones? Try the poor chinese people locked in factories for companies like Apple, slaving away for what they think is college credit, and have to be protected by jutting nets from buildings, just in case they decide to jump off the top of said buildings.

    Chemists are the ones who only designed the products.

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    Somebody explain to me what the lousy metaphore of glue and mountains is supposed to represent in 5G. Am i understanding the motherboard layering is too corse for signal integrety, and we need cleaner methods to etch connective wires in PCBs? Or that reaching that level of stability would lead to disintegrating boards?


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    Lykk Trọng

    0:15 1:00 2:00 3:00 4:00 5:00 || 6:00 7:00 8:00 9:00 10:00

    11:00 12:00 13:00 14:00 15:00 || 16:00 17:00 18:00 19:00 20:00

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    blind yourself to the disservice [toxicity … duuuuuuh] as effectively as this gal does and you bet she slipped herself u liddul satanic 'product', 'safely' of course, … safely

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    Dennis C.

    Very different from just public speaking, When a person is first learning to give presentations power point type especially you die a thousand deaths often. Even when you start to loosen up , like her, become more natural as well as know your material it is still hard AF . What I’m saying is those jokes deserved laughs damn it! Help a sister out .

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    Alexei Kazakov

    i can make only one positive & accurate conclusion (after watching this video): Cathy Mulzer likes a chemistry much.

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    Goy Goddess 2

    I wonder if she factors in the health effects from exposing her unborn child to 5G and all the wifi wireless technology. TED Talks are totally NWO AGENDA 21 promotions.

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    Shiloh Boca

    So a phone is addictive but reading a fucking book isn't????? Lost me there. How about just sticking to the point you were trying to make. "Smartphones, the root of all evil"

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