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TEDGlobal 2012

Catarina Mota: Play with smart materials

July 12, 2012

Ink that conducts electricity; a window that turns from clear to opaque at the flip of a switch; a jelly that makes music. All this stuff exists, and Catarina Mota says: It's time to play with it. Mota leads us on a tour of surprising and cool new materials, and suggests that the way we'll figure out what they're good for is to experiment, tinker and have fun.

Catarina Mota - Maker
A TEDGlobal Fellow, Catarina Mota plays with "smart materials" -- like shape-memory alloys and piezoelectric structures that react to voltage -- and encourages others to do so too. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I have a friend in Portugal
00:15
whose grandfather built a vehicle out of a bicycle
00:18
and a washing machine so he could transport his family.
00:20
He did it because he couldn't afford a car,
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but also because he knew how to build one.
00:26
There was a time when we understood how things worked
00:29
and how they were made, so we could build and repair them,
00:32
or at the very least
00:36
make informed decisions about what to buy.
00:37
Many of these do-it-yourself practices
00:40
were lost in the second half of the 20th century.
00:43
But now, the maker community and the open-source model
00:46
are bringing this kind of knowledge about how things work
00:50
and what they're made of back into our lives,
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and I believe we need to take them to the next level,
00:56
to the components things are made of.
00:59
For the most part, we still know
01:02
what traditional materials like paper and textiles are made of
01:04
and how they are produced.
01:08
But now we have these amazing, futuristic composites --
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plastics that change shape,
01:14
paints that conduct electricity,
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pigments that change color, fabrics that light up.
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Let me show you some examples.
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So conductive ink allows us to paint circuits
01:29
instead of using the traditional
01:33
printed circuit boards or wires.
01:35
In the case of this little example I'm holding,
01:37
we used it to create a touch sensor that reacts to my skin
01:40
by turning on this little light.
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Conductive ink has been used by artists,
01:46
but recent developments indicate that we will soon be able
01:49
to use it in laser printers and pens.
01:53
And this is a sheet of acrylic infused
01:57
with colorless light-diffusing particles.
02:00
What this means is that, while regular acrylic
02:02
only diffuses light around the edges,
02:05
this one illuminates across the entire surface
02:07
when I turn on the lights around it.
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Two of the known applications for this material
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include interior design and multi-touch systems.
02:16
And thermochromic pigments
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change color at a given temperature.
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So I'm going to place this on a hot plate
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that is set to a temperature only slightly higher than ambient
02:28
and you can see what happens.
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So one of the principle applications for this material
02:38
is, amongst other things, in baby bottles,
02:40
so it indicates when the contents are cool enough to drink.
02:44
So these are just a few of what are commonly known
02:49
as smart materials.
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In a few years, they will be in many of the objects
02:54
and technologies we use on a daily basis.
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We may not yet have the flying cars science fiction promised us,
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but we can have walls that change color
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depending on temperature,
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keyboards that roll up,
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and windows that become opaque at the flick of a switch.
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So I'm a social scientist by training,
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so why am I here today talking about smart materials?
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Well first of all, because I am a maker.
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I'm curious about how things work
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and how they are made,
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but also because I believe we should have a deeper understanding
03:28
of the components that make up our world,
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and right now, we don't know enough about
03:34
these high-tech composites our future will be made of.
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Smart materials are hard to obtain in small quantities.
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There's barely any information available on how to use them,
03:44
and very little is said about how they are produced.
03:48
So for now, they exist mostly in this realm
03:52
of trade secrets and patents
03:54
only universities and corporations have access to.
03:57
So a little over three years ago, Kirsty Boyle and I
04:01
started a project we called Open Materials.
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It's a website where we,
04:07
and anyone else who wants to join us,
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share experiments, publish information,
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encourage others to contribute whenever they can,
04:14
and aggregate resources such as research papers
04:18
and tutorials by other makers like ourselves.
04:22
We would like it to become a large,
04:25
collectively generated database
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of do-it-yourself information on smart materials.
04:30
But why should we care
04:34
how smart materials work and what they are made of?
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First of all, because we can't shape what we don't understand,
04:40
and what we don't understand and use
04:45
ends up shaping us.
04:47
The objects we use, the clothes we wear,
04:49
the houses we live in, all have a profound impact
04:52
on our behavior, health and quality of life.
04:55
So if we are to live in a world made of smart materials,
04:59
we should know and understand them.
05:02
Secondly, and just as important,
05:06
innovation has always been fueled by tinkerers.
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So many times, amateurs, not experts,
05:11
have been the inventors and improvers
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of things ranging from mountain bikes
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to semiconductors, personal computers,
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airplanes.
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The biggest challenge is that material science is complex
05:26
and requires expensive equipment.
05:30
But that's not always the case.
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Two scientists at University of Illinois understood this
05:34
when they published a paper on a simpler method
05:38
for making conductive ink.
05:41
Jordan Bunker, who had had
05:43
no experience with chemistry until then,
05:45
read this paper and reproduced the experiment
05:48
at his maker space using only off-the-shelf substances
05:51
and tools.
05:55
He used a toaster oven,
05:57
and he even made his own vortex mixer,
05:58
based on a tutorial by another scientist/maker.
06:01
Jordan then published his results online,
06:05
including all the things he had tried and didn't work,
06:08
so others could study and reproduce it.
06:11
So Jordan's main form of innovation
06:15
was to take an experiment created in a well-equipped lab
06:17
at the university
06:21
and recreate it in a garage in Chicago
06:23
using only cheap materials and tools he made himself.
06:26
And now that he published this work,
06:30
others can pick up where he left
06:32
and devise even simpler processes and improvements.
06:34
Another example I'd like to mention
06:39
is Hannah Perner-Wilson's Kit-of-No-Parts.
06:41
Her project's goal is to highlight
06:45
the expressive qualities of materials
06:47
while focusing on the creativity and skills of the builder.
06:50
Electronics kits are very powerful
06:55
in that they teach us how things work,
06:57
but the constraints inherent in their design
07:00
influence the way we learn.
07:03
So Hannah's approach, on the other hand,
07:05
is to formulate a series of techniques
07:08
for creating unusual objects
07:11
that free us from pre-designed constraints
07:13
by teaching us about the materials themselves.
07:16
So amongst Hannah's many impressive experiments,
07:20
this is one of my favorites.
07:22
["Paper speakers"]
07:24
What we're seeing here is just a piece of paper
07:28
with some copper tape on it connected to an mp3 player
07:31
and a magnet.
07:36
(Music: "Happy Together")
07:37
So based on the research by Marcelo Coelho from MIT,
07:48
Hannah created a series of paper speakers
07:52
out of a wide range of materials
07:54
from simple copper tape to conductive fabric and ink.
07:57
Just like Jordan and so many other makers,
08:01
Hannah published her recipes
08:04
and allows anyone to copy and reproduce them.
08:05
But paper electronics is one of the most promising branches
08:11
of material science
08:14
in that it allows us to create cheaper and flexible electronics.
08:16
So Hannah's artisanal work,
08:20
and the fact that she shared her findings,
08:22
opens the doors to a series of new possibilities
08:25
that are both aesthetically appealing and innovative.
08:28
So the interesting thing about makers
08:34
is that we create out of passion and curiosity,
08:37
and we are not afraid to fail.
08:40
We often tackle problems from unconventional angles,
08:42
and, in the process, end up discovering alternatives
08:46
or even better ways to do things.
08:49
So the more people experiment with materials,
08:51
the more researchers are willing to share their research,
08:55
and manufacturers their knowledge,
08:58
the better chances we have to create technologies
09:01
that truly serve us all.
09:04
So I feel a bit as Ted Nelson must have
09:07
when, in the early 1970s, he wrote,
09:09
"You must understand computers now."
09:13
Back then, computers were these large mainframes
09:16
only scientists cared about,
09:20
and no one dreamed of even having one at home.
09:22
So it's a little strange that I'm standing here and saying,
09:25
"You must understand smart materials now."
09:28
Just keep in mind that acquiring preemptive knowledge
09:31
about emerging technologies
09:34
is the best way to ensure that we have a say
09:37
in the making of our future.
09:39
Thank you.
09:41
(Applause)
09:44
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Catarina Mota - Maker
A TEDGlobal Fellow, Catarina Mota plays with "smart materials" -- like shape-memory alloys and piezoelectric structures that react to voltage -- and encourages others to do so too.

Why you should listen

A maker of things and open-source advocate, Catarina Mota is co-founder of openMaterials.org, a collaborative project dedicated to do-it-yourself experimentation with smart materials. This is a new class of materials that change in response to stimuli: conductive ink, shape-memory plastics, etc. Her goal is to encourage the making of things; to that end, she teaches hands-on workshops on high-tech materials and simple circuitry for both young people and adults--with a side benefit of encouraging interest in science, technology and knowledge-sharing. She's working on her PhD researching the social impact of open and collaborative practices for the development of technologies. In other words: Do we make better stuff when we work together? She is also a co-founder of Lisbon's hackerspace altLab.

The original video is available on TED.com
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