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Lab Breakthrough: Lead-free Solder

May 24, 2012 - 10:45am


Iver Anderson, senior metallurgist at Ames Laboratory, 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-tin solder that has been adopted by more than 50 companies worldwide. View the entire Lab Breakthrough playlist.

Dr. Iver Anderson, Ames National Laboratory materials scientist, developed a lead-free solder 15 years ago, which has been adopted by the electronics industry for its environmental consciousness. Dr. Anderson took some time recently to discuss the impact of that discovery, the road to commercialization and the lab resources that made it possible.

This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations developed at the National Labs. 

Question: First off, for my mom in Ohio, what makes the breakthrough so exciting for her?

Iver Anderson: Your mom can feel a little better about the “retired” cell phone that she must discard because it no longer has any lead-containing solder joints that attach the electronic circuitry together. This will make it less toxic for the disposal process and the eventual waste stream that will enter a landfill site. 

Q: What about your facility made it the right place for this discovery, whether colleagues, equipment or interdisciplinary collaboration?

IA: During our investigations that led to this discovery, the open laboratory environment of the Ames Laboratory and our collaborative way of working helped to establish the key interaction with our eventual co-inventor, Fred Yost of Sandia National Lab. We also have the unique advantage among the National Labs by working directly with our Iowa State University campus community to hire creative and talented graduate students to participate in our research projects.   

Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a “standing on the shoulders of giants” type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?

IA: You could say that our discovery stands on the shoulders of the work of my Ph.D. thesis advisor, John Perepezko, and our many collaborators, especially Bill Boettinger, who were involved in the rapid solidification processing community of the mid-1970s and early 1990s. They had the most general impact on my thinking about the problem of lead-free solder alloy design. 

I drew inspiration for new alloy formulations from the many interesting observations that were made on metastable phase formation that seemed to “lurk below the surface” of equilibrium behavior in many common alloy systems - in particular the silver-copper system. 

Q: What exactly makes a transformative technology a game-changer?

IA: A game changing technology is one that breaks through the commonly perceived barriers to progress that “experts” always cite as the reason to persist in the same old way of doing things.

Q: For a young student (or researcher) looking to make their own breakthroughs, do you have any words of wisdom?

IA: There is always a new way that has not been tried to try to solve any problem. Of course, that untried way may be either very difficult or counterintuitive. Many creative solutions to problems in one field can be borrowed from another field or synthesized from several related observations – stay alert and never stop learning. 

Visit the Lab Breakthroughs topic page for the most recent breakthroughs highlighted in the video series.