Inside Iowa State
April 30, 1999
The thrill of "Eureka!"
by Mitch Mihalovich, Engineering Publication and Communication Services
Iowa State colleagues refer to him as the "patent champ." Materials science and engineering professor Iver Anderson, with his 20 patents and five pending, holds the record for most patents issued to an ISU engineering faculty member.
Two U.S. companies and one in Japan have licensed his patented lead-free solder composition and Anderson smiles like a proud father when he says, "Yeah, we're really going to town on that one."
Anderson, who also serves as metallurgy and ceramics program director for the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Lab, received an R&D 100 Award in 1991 from R&D Magazine, an annual honor that recognizes the nation's 100 most significant new inventions.
The award was for a patented material preparation process. It uses a unique supersonic nozzle to direct extremely cold argon or nitrogen gas, traveling at speeds up to Mach 3, to blast a stream of molten magnet alloy into extremely fine spherical droplets. This rapid cooling process results in a magnetic material that is stronger, less corrosive, more environmentally friendly and cheaper to manufacture than magnets currently available.
Anderson said these magnets are used extensively in motion sensors, electronic communications equipment, computers and motors for appliances and automobiles.
From this new technology, a start-up company, GA Powders, emerged to put centrifugal atomization into use commercially. Magnequench International, the largest permanent magnet powder manufacturer in the world, recently purchased GA Powders. Anderson said he is working with the company, and before full-scale production can begin, they will acquire a commercial license to one of his magnet powder processing patents.
One of Anderson's current research areas focuses on replacing steel in automotive parts with aluminum.
"The automotive industry is looking for lightweight, high- strength parts. For every pound you take out of a rotating power train component, you can improve the mileage by nearly 1 percent," he said.
Anderson said both automotive and airplane manufacturers await the experiment results to see if a new, simplified aluminum powder metallurgy process can produce high- performance components.
Anderson said the secret of his patenting success is his practical approach to research.
"Most of the research we do isn't just pulled out of the blue sky. We do have an eye on the eventual applications," he said.
Anderson gets some of his ideas by attending technical meetings and speaking to industrial leaders.
"I hear what it is they need from materials scientists. Maybe nine times out of 10 I'll think, 'Yeah, no kidding. That would be nice -- good luck.' But then there's that one time when I say to myself, 'Oh yeah. We can do that!'"
Anderson said the "light bulb" generally switches on when he takes a shower.
"That's about the only eight minutes a day I get where I'm not bombarded by a million other things."
His knack for inventions began at age 11, when he and his father, also an engineer, started building gravity-powered go-carts for soapbox derby competitions in Hancock, Mich.
"Every year my dad and I would make some sort of improvement," he explained. "Once, we designed a derby car based on the same theory of aerodynamics as the space shuttle. One year we won an award for the weirdest brake. I guess this early experience of identifying a problem and searching for a solution is what led me to a career in engineering."
Today when an idea hits him, Anderson completes a literature search and tosses around the idea with friends.
"Then we start to experiment a little," he said. "That's why graduate students are so critical. I need them to do the careful experiments, survey literature and give me the occasional reality check."
Anderson recognizes his innovative students by including their names on the patents, which, in addition to the prestige, could result in a royalty check down the road.
"They definitely earn that distinction. I want them to be involved in the industrial driving force behind the patents. If my students see for themselves how industry is crying for the inventions we're working on, it really inspires them," he said.
Two forces motivate Anderson. "One, I like to see something I thought up become a reality. The biggest thrill I could get is seeing a large-scale application of my work in the marketplace. You know, what if every auto in the world had one of my aluminum gears?"
The second is long-lasting satisfaction. He compares it to the first marathon he ever ran.
"The first three hours are hell and the last hour is really hell. But when you cross the finish line -- that's just an incredible feeling. You never forget the step- by-step challenges and the persistence that drive you. So when you work on research that lasts a year, three years or 10 years and you finally get to say, 'Aha!' or 'Eureka!' -- that good feeling of satisfaction lasts a really, really long time."
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