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How smartphones really work

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

Ever wondered how your smartphone works? Take a journey down to the atomic level with scientist Cathy Mulzer, who reveals how almost every component of our high-powered devices exists thanks to chemists -- and not the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that come to most people's minds. As she puts it: "Chemistry is the hero of electronic communications."

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
13:36

English subtitles

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