Surface tensions holds a bit of Ames Laboratory’s lead-free tin-silver-copper alloy together. The material is now the top revenue generator for both Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University.
years ago, an environmentally-friendly solder developed by the U.S
Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory made history as the first
cost-effective, broadly useable alternative to tin-lead solder, a toxic
but necessary ingredient in a range of popular—and
Now lead-free solder, a tin-silver-copper alloy invented by a research team headed by Ames Lab senior metallurgist Iver Anderson,
has made history for a second time: In 2011, it became the top royalty
income-generating technology ever produced in the history of both Ames
Lab and Iowa State University.
earning this distinction, lead-free solder surpassed Ames Lab’s
previous top royalty earner—a mass spectrometer that combines the key
analytical tools of multiplexed capillary electrophoresis with
inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry—and ISU’s longstanding
record-holder: an algorithm, patented in 1972, that expedited the fax
of the end of June 2011 lead-free solder generated $38.9 million in
royalties, exceeding all other licensed ISU technologies,” said Nita
Lovejoy, associate director of the ISU Research Foundation (ISURF) and
ISU’s Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer. Through
its contract with the DOE to operate the lab, ISU may retain rights to
Ames Laboratory funded intellectual property.
mass spectrometer and fax algorithm, by comparison, garnered $17
million and $36 million in royalties, respectively, during their patent
lives, Lovejoy said.
really an honor,” Anderson said, referring to the lead-free solder
accomplishment. “It’s not something you expect to happen in my
Helping green the tech surge
success of lead-free solder—essentially a metallic glue that holds and
electrically connects electronic parts together—stems, in part, from its
role in addressing a unique problem of recent years: the need for
greater quantities of this glue to build the laptops, smartphones,
tablets and other increasingly in-demand devices of our day while
minimizing manufacturing costs and adverse environmental impacts, such
as lead leaching from electronic waste in landfills into groundwater.
solder’s recent achievement reflects the key role it’s playing in
helping companies both efficiently and responsibly manufacture the
popular electronic products that have revolutionized communication in
the 21st century.
the work led by Iver began as a basic research project of the DOE, it
is the model example of how basic research can eventually be applied to
today’s societal needs,” said Ames Laboratory director Alex King. “We
congratulate Iver and his team on their success and look forward to
watching lead-free solder become even more widely used.”
lead-free solder is licensed to 53 companies based in 13 countries
worldwide. Among those, Chinese companies represent some of the newest
the last four to five years, China has become part of a new licensing
trend in lead-free solder adoption,” Anderson said. “China makes a lot
of the components that go into systems made in Japan and the United
States. Some of that is also China accepting its role as a world leader
and, as part of that, the need to respect intellectual property.”
From slow start to global standard
it would be difficult to tell from the impressive licensing rates, and
revenues, of the last several years, lead-free solder wasn’t always so
sought after. Although patented in 1996, licensing was slow for almost a
decade until Japan started a movement for lead-free consumer
electronics in about 2000, Anderson said.
cities are so clustered along coastlines, and have landfill sites close
to housing and schools, that they were worried about lead leaching into
groundwater,” he said.
a viable lead-free alternative and a tight-knit electronics
manufacturing association that enabled a broad industry-wide shift,
Anderson said the Japanese push for lead-free consumer electronics soon
spilled over to other nations, including a 2006 European Union law
banning lead in electronic components.
can mark the first big ISURF [royalty] check to the year before that,”
Anderson said, “because industry has to have qualified materials in
place before a law like that is passed.”
the international nature of the electronics industry, lead-free
consumer electronics manufacturing became global by proxy, marked by a
noticeable growth in lead-free solder licensing rates. Between 2008 and
2011 alone, royalties generated from lead-free licenses increased 105%.
Building better solder for new markets and tougher tests
lead-free solder now an industry standard, Anderson and Ames Lab
colleague Joel Harringa, along with a succession of ISU graduate
students, have been working on next-generation versions that overcome
certain flaws in the original formulation—for instance, the tendency for
solder joints to become brittle over time from prolonged exposure to
high operating temperatures. These improvements may open new avenues for
growing interest in lead-free products in the U.S. military also can
open new markets for lead-free solder in the coming years, with
corresponding new licenses that will help Anderson’s patented
formulation achieve even wider acceptance for very demanding uses.
Collins, a multinational company headquartered in Cedar Rapids, is a
good example of military equipment suppliers in this category, Anderson
make a lot of avionics for military aircraft,” he said. “Rockwell
Collins became seriously interested in lead-free solder technology in
the last two to three years, as the military has become more specific
about the impact of lead-free solder on avionics product reliability.
They’re doing their due diligence on, ‘Do lead-free technologies exhibit
reliability for military applications’, because reliability is the most
important criteria for the military.”
military avionics, a key critical test of lead-free solder reliability
is its ability to withstand a rapid shift from extreme hot to extreme
cold temperatures, according to Dave Hillman, principal materials and
process engineer with Rockwell Collins.
cycling is their toughest avionics test,” Anderson said, explaining
that airplane electronics are routinely subjected to rapid transitions
from temperatures as low as minus 70 F to a high of 260 F.
like the damaging freeze-thaw cycles that lead to rapid deterioration
of road surfaces, Anderson said thermal cycling encourages cracking of
solder, which is potentially deadly in an airplane. A newly modified
lead-free solder alloy he recently tested in collaboration with Hillman,
however, has demonstrated the ability to meet this key critical test.
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.
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
research has been funded by DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences and
Office of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management (now the Office
of Environmental Management), the Iowa State University Research
Foundation and through Work for Others projects with Nihon-Superior Co, a
licensee of the technology.
Lead-free solder is currently available for sub-licensing. For more information, e-mail [email protected].