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After 15 Years, A New Top Earning Patent At Ames Lab

January 20, 2012 - 11:32am


Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist Iver Anderson explains the importance of lead-free solder in taking hazardous lead out of the environment by eliminating it from discarded computers and electronics that wind up in landfills. Anderson led a team that developed a tin-silver-copper replacement for traditional lead solder that has been adopted by more than 50 companies worldwide and has generated more than $39 million in licensing income.

Until earlier this year, an algorithm to expedite fax transmissions reigned as the top earning patent in the history of both Ames National Lab and Iowa State University. That was until a type of lead-free solder, the literal glue that joins and electrically connects the electronics of fax machines, computers and mobile devices, moved to the top spot.

Fifteen years ago, a team led by Ames senior metallurgist Iver Anderson made a breakthrough in developing a tin-silver-copper alloy to replace the potentially dangerous lead-based solder. As of the end of June 2011, lead-free solder generated $38.9 million in royalties, exceeding the earnings by the next highest licensed technology by nearly $3 million. Currently, 53 companies based in 13 countries license the Ames invention.

It’s not surprising the invention has been so successful. The demand for computers and mobile devices continues to grow and with it the demand for lead-free solder, which as of 2006 is the industry standard for consumer electronics. In the three years after the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) went into effect, royalties generated from lead-free licenses increased 105 percent.

With lead-free solder now a consumer electronics industry standard, Anderson is at the lab seeking out new markets and advancing the technology. He and Ames Lab colleague Joel Harringa, along with a succession of ISU graduate students, have been working on next-generation versions of solder that overcome certain flaws in the original formulation for other applications, particularly military avionics.

Solder joints have a tendency to become brittle over time from prolonged exposure to high operating temperatures, a condition prevalent in aircraft. These improvements may open new avenues for adoption by the military, which already has demonstrated a growing interest. 

The new alloy is just one of several projects Anderson is working on as he continues efforts to improve the technology and tackle other obstacles to its use -- efforts that he said stem from a sincere interest in removing toxic substances from the environment.

“I feel a sense of responsibility to continue developing and improving lead-free solder technology,” Anderson said. “If there’s a problem with an alloy, I want to fix it. If there’s another challenge, I want to be involved.”

As for the fax transmission, it may no longer be the highest grossing technology that’s come out of Ames Lab or Iowa State University, but it’s still serving all but one of the major fax makers 30 years after it was first commercialized.