NIST Boulder Laboratories: An Overview
Although many people don't realize it, the NIST Boulder Laboratories make possible many technologies that are commonplace in everyday life. Just a few examples include:
NIST Boulder and the University of Colorado jointly operate JILA, a world leader in atomic, molecular, and optical physics and precision measurement. JILA is home to two NIST Nobel laureates and one NIST MacArthur "Genius Award" winner.
Located by the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the NIST Boulder Laboratories have more than 350 scientific, technical, and support staff, and more than 300 visiting researchers, students, and contractors. With an annual research and measurement budget of about $100 million, NIST Boulder is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md.
NIST Boulder Research Areas
Atomic Clocks—NIST Boulder develops standards for time and frequency and distributes time by radio and the Internet. The NIST-F1 atomic clock—the U.S. national standard for time and frequency—counts the natural vibrations in cesium atoms to an accuracy of about one second in 70 million years (as of August 2007). And NIST Boulder scientists are developing new clocks that will be accurate to one second in many billions of years to support improved navigation, communications, remote sensing, and many other applications. NIST Boulder scientists also pioneered the world's smallest atomic clocks, the size of a grain of rice, which may someday improve GPS, cell phones, and a range of other portable applications.
Nanotechnology—NIST Boulder has been a leader in nanotechnology—research at very small size scales—for decades. Dozens of NIST Boulder projects focus on nanoscience and technology, ranging from applications of carbon nanotubes in optical power standards for laser systems used in manufacturing and communications, to research on nano-oscillators that could replace bulkier and expensive components in cell phones, radar systems, and computer chips. Unique nanotechnology fabrication facilities at the laboratories are used to make special research and measurement devices.
Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics—NIST Boulder is a world leader in the development of new tools for research on atoms, molecules, and the interactions of matter and light, and their applications to improve precision measurements. A priority application is research and measurements for quantum information, using the unique behavior of atoms and light to develop ultra-secure communications for protecting sensitive information such as financial transactions, and for developing quantum computers that could be vastly more powerful than today's best supercomputers.
Electromagnetics—NIST Boulder scientists measure and study electromagnetic radiation and properties to support the development of ever-faster and smaller computers, radar, satellite, and wireless devices. NIST Boulder measurements and technology also promote the practical use of superconductors in applications such as power grid reliability and future fusion energy production, and the development of new electromagnetic nanotechnologies for everything from improved biomedical imaging to information storage to quantum computing.
Optoelectronics—The laboratories provide laser performance standards over a wider range of wavelengths than any other measurement laboratory, supporting telecommunications, medical applications, and industrial uses. NIST Boulder makes and studies unique devices such as compound-semiconductor nanowires for light-emitting diodes and nanolasers. NIST Boulder also develops and measures devices to produce and detect individual photons—the smallest particles of light—for use in ultra-secure quantum communications and unique optical measurements.
Materials—NIST Boulder scientists develop measurement methods and standards to enhance the quality and reliability of materials, from the level of individual atoms to the scale of pipelines and skyscrapers. They are developing ways to better measure the purity and safety of new nanomaterials, the integrity of steel pipelines for transporting alternative fuels such as hydrogen, and the mechanical properties of biological materials for use in diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Mathematical, Statistical, and Computational Methods—NIST Boulder research in mathematics and statistics supports a wide variety of measurement applications. For example, NIST Boulder develops techniques for the design of future quantum computers, for the study of ultra-high-speed signals for fiber-optic and wireless communications and radar, and for obtaining the best measurements from "noisy" data.
Laser Science—NIST Boulder is a world leader in laser science, including the development of optical frequency combs, Nobel-Prize-winning precision tools for measuring different colors of light, and their applications in the latest atomic clocks and precision measurements. NIST scientists are renowned for their work in laser cooling—the use of laser light to cool atoms to near absolute zero—and the creation of Bose-Einstein and fermionic condensates, unique states of matter of global research interest.
Chemical Properties—The research staff at NIST Boulder develop measurements, standards, data, and models for physical and chemical properties of gases, liquids, solids, and ultracold refrigeration systems. NIST Boulder research and measurements on alternative fuels and biofuels help make the nation's energy future more economical and secure, and NIST Boulder leadership in cryogenic technologies underpins advances in aerospace, defense, and medical applications.
Quantum Sensors—NIST Boulder is the world leader in microelectronic devices that use quantum physics to create previously impossible measurement systems. Based on superconductivity and operating at very low temperatures, these systems continue to revolutionize the way the world measures voltage, probes electronics at the single electron level, "sees" the faintest light from the origins of the universe, and identifies nuclear materials. The same devices also are being explored for building quantum computers.
Recent Examples of NIST Boulder Technology Transfer