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  • 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