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← How smartphones really work

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Showing Revision 6 created 11/27/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. When I waltzed off to high school
    with my new Nokia phone,
  2. I thought I just had
    the new, coolest replacement
  3. for my old pink princess walkie-talkie.
  4. Except now, my friends and I
    could text or talk to each other
  5. wherever we were,
  6. instead of pretending,
  7. when we were running around
    each other's backyards.
  8. Now, I'll be honest.
  9. Back then, I didn't think a lot
    about how these devices were made.
  10. They tended to show up
    on Christmas morning,
  11. so maybe they were made
    by the elves in Santa's workshop.
  12. Let me ask you a question.

  13. Who do you think the real elves
    that make these devices are?
  14. If I ask a lot of the people I know,
  15. they would say it's the hoodie-wearing
    software engineers in Silicon Valley,
  16. hacking away at code.
  17. But a lot has to happen to these devices
  18. before they're ready for any kind of code.
  19. These devices start at the atomic level.
  20. So if you ask me,
  21. the real elves are the chemists.
  22. That's right, I said the chemists.
  23. Chemistry is the hero
    of electronic communications.
  24. And my goal today is to convince you
  25. to agree with me.
  26. OK, let's start simple,

  27. and take a look inside
    these insanely addictive devices.
  28. Because without chemistry,
  29. what is an information
    superhighway that we love,
  30. would just be a really expensive,
    shiny paperweight.
  31. Chemistry enables all of these layers.
  32. Let's start at the display.
  33. How do you think we get
    those bright, vivid colors
  34. that we love so much?
  35. Well, I'll tell you.
  36. There's organic polymers
    embedded within the display,
  37. that can take electricity
    and turn it into the blue, red and green
  38. that we enjoy in our pictures.
  39. What if we move down to the battery?

  40. Now there's some intense research.
  41. How do we take the chemical principles
    of traditional batteries
  42. and pair it with new,
    high surface area electrodes,
  43. so we can pack more charge
    in a smaller footprint of space,
  44. so that we could power
    our devices all day long,
  45. while we're taking selfies,
  46. without having to recharge our batteries
  47. or sit tethered to an electrical outlet?
  48. What if we go to the adhesives
    that bind it all together,

  49. so that it could withstand
    our frequent usage?
  50. After all, as a millennial,
  51. I have to take my phone out
    at least 200 times a day to check it,
  52. and in the process,
    drop it two to three times.
  53. But what are the real brains
    of these devices?

  54. What makes them work
    the way that we love them so much?
  55. Well that all has to do
    with electrical components and circuitry
  56. that are tethered
    to a printed circuit board.
  57. Or maybe you prefer a biological metaphor --
  58. the motherboard,
    you might have heard of that.
  59. Now, the printed circuit board
    doesn't really get talked about a lot.
  60. And I'll be honest,
    I don't know why that is.
  61. Maybe it's because
    it's the least sexy layer
  62. and it's hidden beneath all of those
    other sleek-looking layers.
  63. But it's time to finally give this
    Clark Kent layer
  64. the Superman-worthy praise it deserves.
  65. And so I ask you a question.

  66. What do you think
    a printed circuit board is?
  67. Well, consider a metaphor.
  68. Think about the city that you live in.
  69. You have all these points of interest
    that you want to get to:
  70. your home, your work, restaurants,
  71. a couple of Starbucks on every block.
  72. And so we build roads
    that connect them all together.
  73. That's what a printed circuit board is.
  74. Except, instead of having
    things like restaurants,
  75. we have transistors on chips,
  76. capacitors, resistors,
  77. all of these electrical components
  78. that need to find a way
    to talk to each other.
  79. And so what are our roads?
  80. Well, we build tiny copper wires.
  81. So the next question is,

  82. how do we make these tiny copper wires?
  83. They're really small.
  84. Could it be that we go
    to the hardware store,
  85. pick up a spool of copper wire,
  86. get some wire cutters, a little clip-clip,
  87. saw it all up and then, bam --
    we have our printed circuit board?
  88. No way.
  89. These wires are way too small for that.
  90. And so we have to rely
    on our friend: chemistry.
  91. Now, the chemical process
    to make these tiny copper wires

  92. is seemingly simple.
  93. We start with a solution
  94. of positively charged copper spheres.
  95. We then add to it an insulating
    printed circuit board.
  96. And we feed those
    positively charged spheres
  97. negatively charged electrons
  98. by adding formaldehyde to the mix.
  99. So you might remember formaldehyde.
  100. Really distinct odor,
  101. used to preserve frogs in biology class.
  102. Well it turns out it can do
    a lot more than just that.
  103. And it's a really key component
  104. to making these tiny copper wires.
  105. You see, the electrons
    on formaldehyde have a drive.
  106. They want to jump over to those
    positively charged copper spheres.
  107. And that's all because of a process
    known as redox chemistry.
  108. And when that happens,
  109. we can take these positively
    charged copper spheres
  110. and turn them into bright,
  111. shiny, metallic and conductive copper.
  112. And once we have conductive copper,
  113. now we're cooking with gas.
  114. And we can get all
    of those electrical components
  115. to talk to each other.
  116. So thank you once again to chemistry.
  117. And let's take a thought

  118. and think about how far
    we've come with chemistry.
  119. Clearly, in electronic communications,
  120. size matters.
  121. So let's think about
    how we can shrink down our devices,
  122. so that we can go from our 1990s
    Zack Morris cell phone
  123. to something a little bit more sleek,
  124. like the phones of today
    that can fit in our pockets.
  125. Although, let's be real here:
  126. absolutely nothing can fit
    into ladies' pants pockets,
  127. if you can find a pair of pants
    that has pockets.
  128. (Laughter)

  129. And I don't think chemistry
    can help us with that problem.

  130. But more important
    than shrinking the actual device,
  131. how do we shrink
    the circuitry inside of it,
  132. and shrink it by 100 times,
  133. so that we can take the circuitry
    from the micron scale
  134. all the way down to the nanometer scale?
  135. Because, let's face it,
  136. right now we all want
    more powerful and faster phones.
  137. Well, more power and faster
    requires more circuitry.
  138. So how do we do this?

  139. It's not like we have some magic
    electromagnetic shrink ray,
  140. like professor Wayne Szalinski used
    in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"
  141. to shrink his children.
  142. On accident, of course.
  143. Or do we?
  144. Well, actually, in the field,
  145. there's a process
    that's pretty similar to that.
  146. And it's name is photolithography.
  147. In photolithography,
    we take electromagnetic radiation,
  148. or what we tend to call light,
  149. and we use it to shrink down
    some of that circuitry,
  150. so that we could cram more of it
    into a really small space.
  151. Now, how does this work?

  152. Well, we start with a substrate
  153. that has a light-sensitive film on it.
  154. We then cover it with a mask
    that has a pattern on top of it
  155. of fine lines and features
  156. that are going to make the phone work
    the way that we want it to.
  157. We then expose a bright light
    and shine it through this mask,
  158. which creates a shadow
    of that pattern on the surface.
  159. Now, anywhere that the light
    can get through the mask,
  160. it's going to cause
    a chemical reaction to occur.
  161. And that's going to burn the image
    of that pattern into the substrate.
  162. So the question you're probably asking is,

  163. how do we go from a burned image
  164. to clean fine lines and features?
  165. And for that, we have to use
    a chemical solution
  166. called the developer.
  167. Now the developer is special.
  168. What it can do is take
    all of the nonexposed areas
  169. and remove them selectively,
  170. leaving behind clean
    fine lines and features,
  171. and making our miniaturized devices work.
  172. So, we've used chemistry now
    to build up our devices,

  173. and we've used it
    to shrink down our devices.
  174. So I've probably convinced you
    that chemistry is the true hero,
  175. and we could wrap it up there.
  176. (Applause)

  177. Hold on, we're not done.

  178. Not so fast.
  179. Because we're all human.
  180. And as a human, I always want more.
  181. And so now I want to think
    about how to use chemistry
  182. to extract more out of a device.
  183. Right now, we're being told
    that we want something called 5G,

  184. or the promised
    fifth generation of wireless.
  185. Now, you might have heard of 5G
  186. in commercials
    that are starting to appear.
  187. Or maybe some of you even experienced it
  188. in the 2018 winter Olympics.
  189. What I'm most excited about for 5G
  190. is that, when I'm late,
    running out of the house to catch a plane,
  191. I can download movies
    onto my device in 40 seconds
  192. as opposed to 40 minutes.
  193. But once true 5G is here,
  194. it's going to be a lot more
    than how many movies
  195. we can put on our device.
  196. So the question is,
    why is true 5G not here?

  197. And I'll let you in on a little secret.
  198. It's pretty easy to answer.
  199. It's just plain hard to do.
  200. You see, if you use
    those traditional materials and copper
  201. to build 5G devices,
  202. the signal can't make it
    to its final destination.
  203. Traditionally, we use
    really rough insulating layers

  204. to support copper wires.
  205. Think about Velcro fasteners.
  206. It's the roughness of the two pieces
    that make them stick together.
  207. That's pretty important
    if you want to have a device
  208. that's going to last longer
  209. than it takes you to rip it out of the box
  210. and start installing
    all of your apps on it.
  211. But this roughness causes a problem.

  212. You see, at the high speeds for 5G
  213. the signal has to travel
    close to that roughness.
  214. And it makes it get lost
    before it reaches its final destination.
  215. Think about a mountain range.
  216. And you have a complex system of roads
    that goes up and over it,
  217. and you're trying
    to get to the other side.
  218. Don't you agree with me
  219. that it would probably take
    a really long time,
  220. and you would probably get lost,
  221. if you had to go up and down
    all of the mountains,
  222. as opposed to if you just
    drilled a flat tunnel
  223. that could go straight on through?
  224. Well it's the same thing
    in our 5G devices.
  225. If we could remove this roughness,
  226. then we can send the 5G signal
  227. straight on through uninterrupted.
  228. Sounds pretty good, right?
  229. But hold on.

  230. Didn't I just tell you
    that we needed that roughness
  231. to keep the device together?
  232. And if we remove it,
    we're in a situation where now the copper
  233. isn't going to stick
    to that underlying substrate.
  234. Think about building
    a house of Lego blocks,
  235. with all of the nooks and crannies
    that latch together,
  236. as opposed to smooth building blocks.
  237. Which of the two is going to have
    more structural integrity
  238. when the two-year-old comes
    ripping through the living room,
  239. trying to play Godzilla
    and knock everything down?
  240. But what if we put glue
    on those smooth blocks?
  241. And that's what
    the industry is waiting for.
  242. They're waiting for the chemists
    to design new, smooth surfaces
  243. with increased inherent adhesion
  244. for some of those copper wires.
  245. And when we solve this problem,

  246. and we will solve the problem,
  247. and we'll work
    with physicists and engineers
  248. to solve all of the challenges of 5G,
  249. well then the number of applications
    is going to skyrocket.
  250. So yeah, we'll have things
    like self-driving cars,
  251. because now our data networks
    can handle the speeds
  252. and the amount of information
    required to make that work.
  253. But let's start to use imagination.
  254. I can imagine going into a restaurant
    with a friend that has a peanut allergy,
  255. taking out my phone,
  256. waving it over the food
  257. and having the food tell us
  258. a really important answer to a question --
  259. deadly or safe to consume?
  260. Or maybe our devices will get so good
  261. at processing information about us,
  262. that they'll become
    like our personal trainers.
  263. And they'll know the most efficient way
    for us to burn calories.
  264. I know come November,
  265. when I'm trying to burn off
    some of these pregnancy pounds,
  266. I would love a device
    that could tell me how to do that.
  267. I really don't know
    another way of saying it,

  268. except chemistry is just cool.
  269. And it enables all of these
    electronic devices.
  270. So the next time you send a text
    or take a selfie,
  271. think about all those atoms
    that are hard at work
  272. and the innovation that came before them.
  273. Who knows,
  274. maybe even some of you
    listening to this talk,
  275. perhaps even on your mobile device,
  276. will decide that you too
    want to play sidekick
  277. to Captain Chemistry,
  278. the true hero of electronic devices.
  279. Thank you for your attention,

  280. and thank you chemistry.
  281. (Applause)