Iver Anderson-Lead-Free Solder

Tiffany Westrom

Iver Anderson, metallurgist at the Ames Lab, has affected almost all of the cell phones and computers on the Iowa State campus and beyond.

Anderson invented a lead-free solder that is used in electronics and has now brought in approximately $40 million in royalties, the most of any patent in Ames Lab and Iowa State University history. Solder is a metal alloy that is used to join together other metals.

“A patent that actually hits and makes money is so rare; I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Anderson said.

Anderson and his team began the project in August of 1992, five years after he was brought to the Ames lab to work on metal powders. He earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the lead-free solder work was closely related to his thesis.

In early 2003, the European Union adopted the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive that stated that all electronics that were to be sold in Europe had to be free of six hazardous materials, one of which was lead. The concern is that when electronics end up in a landfill, the lead can leak into groundwater, which can be dangerous to human health.

The nature of a global economy means that electronics that were sold in the United States, Asia and elsewhere were adapted to meet the requirements of the directive so that they would also be available to the European market. Regulation began on July 1, 2006, so electronics produced after that date, likely include Anderson’s lead-free solder.

This European Union regulation has greatly affected the success of this particular invention. Steps toward sustainability and environmentally friendly solutions have created many regulations.

“This is a very good example of how regulation drives innovation,” Anderson said. “Tougher regulations have allowed electronics to advance.”

Anderson also attributed the success of his solder to the fact that it is something that comes as a part of an electronic instead of being a stand-alone product. Masters students and other metallurgists provided assistance over the years in developing the solder. 

“It just really goes to show the value of those close collaborations between the university and the lab, it really is a unique environment here,” said Tamsyn Jones, an Ames Lab communication specialist. 

The lead-free solder is licensed to over 60 companies around the world, and its patent has about two years remaining on it. Anderson and his team have been at work to improve the solder. The lead-free solder can occasionally get brittle, which can cause a bad joint, so the team has been doing research to address this issue and create a better alloy.

“Pursing what you’re curious about is important,” Anderson said, who also has some other advice for students who hope to find success.

His tips are to pay attention in class, pursue graduate degrees, understand the impact of a new material and drive the edge of technology.