You are here

Success Stories


When it comes to successfully moving inventions from the laboratory bench to the commercial marketplace, Ames Laboratory has an excellent track record. Among the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories, Ames Laboratory has historically ranked at or near the top in royalty income generated by inventions, despite the fact that it’s the smallest lab with the smallest budget.

For example, in fiscal year 2011, Ames Laboratory inventions generated approximately $9.2 million in royalty income on $767 million in sales. That total sales amount represents over $22 of economic activity for every dollar of Ames Lab’s $35 million annual budget. And of those total sales, more than $110 million were generated by Iowa-based companies, supporting more than 540 manufacturing jobs in the state.

Since record keeping began in 1980, Ames Lab researchers have been issued a total of 224 patents for 159 different technologies. A number of these patents have been licensed and developed commercially, and we highlight some of those success stories here.

Lead-free Solder
Ames Laboratory’s most successful invention to date has been the development of a tin-silver-copper alloy to replace traditional lead-based solder. Licensed by more than 60 companies worldwide, Ames Lab’s lead-free solder has generated more than $55 million in royalty income since it was patented in 1996.

ImageDeveloped by a team of researchers led by Ames Laboratory senior metallurgist Iver Anderson, lead-free solder was a necessary development to help eliminate toxic lead from landfills caused by the disposal of an ever-growing amount of electronic waste. Solder is the shiny metal “glue” used to attach components to circuit boards in all types of electronics from cellphones and computers to televisions and kitchen appliances.

“Solder has been around for 5,000 years and the basic formula of 63 percent tin and 37 percent lead was unchanged,” Anderson says. “It was used because it was a eutectic alloy – it acts likes a pure metal with a single melting (and solidification) point.”

It was this eutectic property that made finding a non-lead substitute difficult. Anderson’s team experimented with various combinations until they found a mixture of tin, silver and copper that offered a lower melting point and greater strength than other alloys being considered.

The driving force behind a lead-free alternative to traditional solder was a ban on the use of lead and other hazardous materials in all electronics that was imposed by the European Union in 2006. Given the global nature of electronics manufacturing and distribution, the EU’s ban was essentially international in scope.

Tests show the Ames Lab solder exhibits higher strength than the original lead-based predecessor. Its 217o C melting point makes it a viable choice for the increasing number of electronic components in automotive applications. Temperatures there can easily reach 150o C, causing typical lead solder, with a 183o C melting point, to become pliant and subject to failure.

Multiplexed Capillary Electrophoresis
This R&D 100 Award-winning analytical technology was developed by Ames Lab senior chemist Ed Yeung as a breakthrough in quickly and inexpensively analyzing the chemical composition of multiple samples at once. The technology uses hair-fine glass capillary tubes, typically arranged in eight groups of 12 – 96 total, to draw in the solution to be analyzed.

High voltage and the capillary action of the tubes are used to separate the component molecules in the sample mixture. The capillaries are exposed to ultraviolet light and depending on the speed at which the material passes through the tubes and the amount of UV light it absorbs, the chemical make-up of the material is detected. Another variation uses a laser or LED light source and measures the amount that the component molecules fluoresce to determine chemical makeup.Yeung’s technology was used extensively to help map the human genome and is a vital tool in genetic research labs around the world.
The technology was commercialized by an Ames-based startup company called Combisep that in 2006 merged with another Ames company, Advanced Analytical Technologies Inc. AATI had specialized in microbial detection, but the acquisition of Combisep opened the door to allow further development of Yeung’s technology.

“It gave us a platform and a tool that you can use in a variety of ways and fields,” says Steve Siembieda, AATI’s chief operating officer, “including pharmaceuticals, biotech, biofuels, and medical research. One of the great things is we can identify many different segments within those fields, such as children’s genetics or autism research and work to customize the technology for that specific need.”

The company currently offers five different analyzers based on Yeung’s technology.


A technician at Advanced Analytical Technologies Inc tests a Fragment Analyzer prior to shipping it to Texas Tech.

The most popular is a compact machine called the Fragment Analyzer used in genetic research to separate and analyze DNA and RNA fragments. In fact, AATI can’t build the machines fast enough.
“We’ve built 75 instruments since the beginning of the year and we still have a backlog of orders,” Siembieda says. “We’re adding production staff, growing and working hard to have a major presence in life science instrumentation to help researchers get work done quicker and better.”
And while the company has a growing international reputation, it will likely stay in Ames.
“We have access to a high-quality workforce, the engineers and scientists, right here in our own backyard,” Siembieda says, adding that several AATI staff formerly worked with Ed Yeung at Ames Lab and Iowa State University. “Ames is a good place to find people who want to work and work hard and the State, through various incentives, has been instrumental in keeping biotech companies in Iowa.”

BAM (Boron-Aluminum-Magnesium)
This super-tough ceramic alloy with a very low coefficient of friction was discovered somewhat by accident as Ames Laboratory researchers Bruce Cook and Joel Harringa were looking at the thermoelectric properties of intermetallic materials. The samples of the boron-aluminum-magnesium were so hard, the Lab’s diamond saws could barely cut them.

Industrial cutting tools sit atop a disk of the boron-aluminum-magnesium
alloy. Even a microns-thin coating of BAM greatly increases the useful life
of cutting tools.

According to Ames Lab associate Alan Russell, BAM isn’t like most superhard materials, such as diamond, that have a simple, regular and symmetrical crystalline structure. Instead, BAM’s structure is complex, has low symmetry, and often has a few atoms missing. As for its slipperiness, Cook speculates that boron oxidation takes place on the surface, and this thin film of boron oxide reacts with the water vapor in the air to make the coating slippery.

“It’s almost as if it’s a self-lubricating surface,” he says. “It’s inherently slippery so you don’t have to add oil or other lubricants.”

Like most intermetallics, the material is brittle, which means that for some uses it’s better to apply it as a thin coating on metal rather than as a solid piece.  Early trials showed such promise that Cook’s group was awarded a four-year, $3 million grant through the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to study it further for use in boosting energy efficiency in pumps and industrial cutting tools.

Applying a micron-thick coating of BAM + titanium boride to the blades of a pump turbine reduces friction within the pump, allows the pump to run more efficiently, and also boosts wear resistance and pump life. Eaton Corporation, a leading manufacturer of fluid power equipment, partnered with Ames Lab to test the coating on pump components.

Similarly, applying BAM + titanium boride coatings on industrial cutting tools also reduces the amount of friction between the tool and the metal workpiece, so less applied force is needed, which directly translates to a reduction in the energy required for the machining operation. Greenleaf Corporation, a leading industrial cutting tool maker, also partnered on the project to investigate BAM’s use on cutting tools.

Recently, Cook and Russell began working with ISU materials science and engineering researcher Kaitlin Bratlie to investigate the bio-compatibility of BAM as a preliminary test toward possibly using the material as a wear-resistant coating on medical implants such as artificial knee and hip replacement joints. The work is being funded by a grant from the Iowa State University Research Foundation.

BAM was patented and licensed to New Tech Ceramics, an Iowa-based startup located in Boone. According to New Tech’s chief operations officer Peter Hong, the company has been in discussions with 60 different companies about the product and is close to signing agreements with six of them.

Hong says there are four main branches in the potential use of BAM – as a powdered alloy, as a thin (less than five microns) coating, as a thick coating (thousandths of an inch thick), and as a solid. Potential uses depend on the branch being considered.

“The powder itself can be used as an additive to improve lubricity or hardness of other materials such as polymers,” Hong says. “As a thin film, there’s a wide range of potential uses from consumer products to aerospace and defense applications. It improves wear resistance so it’s a substitute for heat treating, hard anodizing, or chroming, with applications for engine parts, rifle barrels and munitions, a non-metallic interface for hip and knee joints or even in helping keep the dentist’s drill sharper so vibration is reduced.”

As a “thick” film, the material could be sprayed in an open atmosphere to coat larger surfaces, similar to spray painting, for parts like grader or snowplow blades, agricultural implements like plows and discs, and surfaces of jet engine turbines. It would also replace heat treating these larger parts, which would also reduce the producer’s carbon footprint by eliminating the heat source.

Solid parts would be molded and sintered from powders to produce wear-resistant products such as spray nozzles used in cutting tools and as potential armor plate for military vehicles as well as body armor. It could even be used for making jewelry.

Terfenol-D is an alloy of terbium, iron and dysprosium that exhibits giant magnetostriction – it changes shape when subjected to a magnetic field. Originally conceived by the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in the 1970s for high-powered sonar, the metallurgy to produce Terfenol-D was developed by Ames Laboratory researcher Dale McMasters and others, who partnered with NOL to produce Terfenol-D in research quantities.

As a so-called “smart material,” Terfenol-D has a variety of uses that take advantage of its ability to convert electrical energy (magnetic field) into mechanical energy (linear expansion).

ETREMA Products Inc. (EPI) is the sole U.S. supplier of Terfenol-D and was established in 1987 to commercialize Terfenol-D and transition the technology from laboratory discovery to industry. The technology for producing Terfenol-D was fully transferred from Ames Laboratory to EPI, granting it the technique to start small-scale production of the material.

In 1993, EPI expanded to a new facility in Ames, Iowa with the ability to house, develop and manufacture Terfenol-D and products based on that core technology. EPI has created three key business areas: Terfenol-D material sales, manufacture of devices powered by Terfenol-D and engineering services to assist customers in the development of new products based on Terfenol-D.

“About 80 percent of our business is

Terfenol-D in raw and finished form.

 engineering services,” says Jon Snodgrass, EPI president and chief operating officer. “We produce Terfenol-D, but the actual quantities used in most products are relatively small. Our bread and butter is providing engineering expertise to help take advantage of Terfenol-D’s properties.”

One area where Terfenol-D touches everyday life is the lawnmower, string trimmer or chain saw sitting in your garage. The smart material is used in the precision machining of pistons in small engines to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce pollution.

The pistons are turned in an oval shape so that as they heat and expand, their shape becomes round and better fits in the engine’s cylinder bore. To turn the oval shape, EPI developed its Active Machining System that uses Terfenol-D to precisely move the cutting tool in and out as the piston blank turns on a machining lathe. This back and forth movement happens twice for each time the lathe spins the piston one full rotation. The AMS is synchronized with the speed of the lathe to deliver precision results with no degradation in control over time.

“We’re just preparing to ship our 14th AMS,” Snodgrass says, “so it’s an important product for us. If you buy a Briggs and Stratton engine or Stihl gas-powered product, it’s highly likely the pistons were produced by our AMS.”