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NIST, Columbia Honored for 1931 Discovery of Heavy Hydrogen

For Immediate Release: November 12, 2008

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Contact: Michael Baum

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Columbia University have been named by the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of the History of Chemistry as recipients of the ACS Citation for Chemical Breakthrough Award in recognition of the isolation of deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen commonly called “heavy hydrogen.” The feat—proving that deuterium actually existed—was achieved in 1931 by physicists from the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), NIST’s predecessor, and Columbia.

The award was given to NIST during a ceremony at the agency’s headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., on Nov. 6, 2008.

In 1931, NBS physicist Ferdinand Brickwedde collaborated with Columbia physicists Harold Urey and George Murphy to produce the first sample of deuterium at the NBS Low Temperature Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (on what is now the campus of the University of the District of Columbia). Team leader Urey was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery. Today, deuterium is used as a non-radioactive tracer in scientific and medical research and in the study of thermonuclear fusion reactions.

For more information on the first isolation of deuterium, go to http://nvl.nist.gov/pub/nistpubs/sp958-lide/043-045.pdf.