Ames National Lab's investment in solder research pays off

Tuesday - 1/10/2012, 11:07am EST

Dr. Alex King, director, Ames National Laboratory

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Two decades ago, the Ames National Laboratory on the Iowa State University campus started developing an environmentally-friendly, lead-free solder that is paying dividends today.

This solder has now become the top money-maker for the Energy Department lab. As of this summer, the solder has generated $38.9 million in royalties, said Nita Lovejoy, associate director of the ISU Research Foundation (ISURF) and ISU's Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, in a release.

Lead-free soldering (Photo from Ameslab.gov)

Soldering is a process of melting a thin layer of metal between two pieces of metal.

"Then you let it solidify and you have a nice, hopefully strong, hopefully electrically conducting joint," said Dr. Alex King, director of the Ames National Lab, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Soldering is not a new process. King said there is archaeological evidence that soldering was in practice thousands of years ago. However, Ames' invention used an alloy that did not rely on lead and tin, what was traditionally used in soldering.

The lab established an international patent for the alloy so now anyone who uses it for commercial purposes must pay royalties, King said. Currently, lead-free solder is licensed to 53 companies in 13 countries, according to the release.

In recent years, the European Union and Japanese banned the use of lead in electronics.

Dr. Alex King, director of the Ames National Laboratory (Photo from Ameslab.gov)

"Lead is a problem when you are recycling or when you are disposing of old electronics," King said. "And who keeps a cell phone for four or five years these days? They're all either thrown in the trash or recycled.

Lead-based electronics that end up in landfills leech into the groundwater, while recycled electronics expose people who to the recycling to lead fumes, King said.

"What happened was the alloy that was invented here proved to be a very, very appropriate replacement because you can almost literally take a spool of the old lead-tin solder out of the machine, replace it with a spool of the alloy we invented — you have to tweak the temperature settings just a little bit — but the whole process will work just as if you made no changes at all," King said.

Ames' current research is focused heavily on rare earth elements, King said. Currently, 97 percent of these elements come from one place — China, he said.

Prices have "gone through the roof" because supply and demand are out of balance, King said.

"We're working very hard to develop new sources of rare earth, to develop recycling for rare earth and, as we did with the lead-free solder, develop replacements, so we can use things that are not so sensitive to the source of supply," he said.

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