Iowa State University-patented solder keeps life rolling, cash flowing

AMES, IA. — Most people spend their lives within arm’s reach of lead-free solder, a material that has earned Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University more than $47 million in royalties.

To understand how the alloy became the highest-grossing patent in ISU history, think about where and how the average American comes into contact with the eco-friendly metal:

Mash the snooze button of an alarm clock, brew java with a coffee machine, check email on a cellphone, drive to work in a car, log in to a work computer, flip open a laptop at home or turn on a flat-screen TV.

All of these activities rely on lead-free solder, a material made of tin, silver and copper that has been as good as gold for Ames Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research facility at ISU. The lab estimates its invention is found in 4.2 billion cellphones and 2.6 billion personal computers worldwide.

“It’s hard to imagine a world without it. Nothing would work,” said Iver Anderson, a scientist at the laboratory and an ISU engineering professor, who developed the solder that was patented in 1996.

Ames Laboratory is one of 17 Department of Energy research facilities in the nation, and one of the best at developing technology that directly affects people’s lives, lab director Alex King said. Another notable invention from the lab is a metal found in small gasoline engines, like those on lawn mowers, that helps them run cleaner and more efficiently.

“If you live in this world, and you don’t live as a recluse in the backwoods, we pretty much touch you somehow, some way,” King said.

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