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Tech Beat - October 7, 2014

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: June 23, 2010
Date Modified: October 7, 2014 

NIST Laser Comb System Maps 3D Surfaces Remotely for Manufacturing, Forensics

Detailed image of a shoe sole as mapped by NIST’s 3D laser detection and ranging (LADAR) system from 10.5 meters away. The movie shows the sole as it appears from different perspectives in rendering software. The shoe was placed upside down on an optical table (seen as flat surface with regularly spaced holes). The colors indicate distance, with blue/purple indicating shorter distances (or higher areas of the shoe sole) and red/brown longer distances. In the second part of the movie detailing the shoe sole pattern, the color scale spans a range of about 10 millimeters (mm). The prominent shoe sole patterns are about 1-2 mm deep.
Credit: Baumann/NIST

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a laser-based imaging system that creates high-definition 3D maps of surfaces from as far away as 10.5 meters.* The method may be useful in diverse fields, including precision machining and assembly, as well as in forensics.

NIST's 3D mapping system combines a form of laser detection and ranging (LADAR), which is sensitive enough to detect weak reflected light, with the ranging accuracy made possible by frequency combs, as previously demonstrated at NIST.** The frequency comb, a tool for precisely measuring different frequencies of light, is used to continuously calibrate the laser in the imaging system.

Operating with laser power of just 9 milliwatts—which is safe for the eyes at the instrument's infrared wavelength—NIST's 3D mapping system scans a target object point by point across a grid, measuring the distance to each point. The system uses the distance data to make a 3D image of about 1 million pixels in less than 8.5 minutes at the current scanning rate. Distances to points on a rough surface that reflects light in many directions can be determined to within 10 micrometers in half a millisecond, with an accuracy that is traceable to a frequency standard.

The system has wide dynamic range, enabling precise 3D mapping of targets with varied surface types and reflective properties. NIST researchers demonstrated the range by scanning footprints in soil, vegetation such as cactus (imaging individual spines), and complex mechanical devices such as a piston for a motorcycle.

The new NIST method offers a unique set of capabilities compared to conventional 3D mapping techniques. The NIST system is similar to optical coherence tomography, for example, but can operate much farther away from the target and is inherently accurate because of the frequency comb. The NIST system does not need a reference artifact to be placed next to the target, something typically required for interferometry-based systems.

LADAR typically measures distance based on the round-trip flight time of laser light, which reflects off the target and is detected by a sensor. In the NIST LADAR system, the laser sweeps continuously across a band of frequencies. The initial laser output is combined with the reflected light and the resulting "beat" signals are converted to voltage and analyzed by digital signal processing to generate time delay data, which is used to calculate the distance. (The difference in frequency between the transmitted and received signals increases with distance.)

This basic technique is well established .*** However, by including a frequency comb to continuously calibrate the swept laser, the NIST system can operate much more rapidly, yielding one measurement point every half a millisecond and simultaneously maintain sub-micrometer accuracy traceable to a frequency standard. Finally, the system uses real-time, fast processing digital electronics to produce fully calibrated, 3D megapixel images.

As an example application, NIST's 3D mapping system could be used to make virtual casts of forensic evidence such as footprints in dirt. Conventional plaster casts that record impression evidence normally require a lot of effort to make and are difficult to compare to each other or to shoes. Furthermore, conventional analysis can destroy the evidence. By contrast, a remotely created 3D image of a footprint can nondestructively reveal more details than a photograph, such as exact measurements of shoe tread. The tread may show individual wear marks from a bicycle pedal, for example, a type of detail that could link a specific shoe to a crime scene.

Several manufacturers already have expressed interest in the NIST system, which is currently about the size of a desktop but suitable for future potential conversion to a portable, chip-scale instrument. The research was funded by NIST and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

* E. Baumann, F.R. Giorgetta, J.D. Deschenes, W.C. Swann, I. Coddington and N.R. Newbury. Comb-calibrated laser ranging for three-dimensional surface profiling with micrometer-level precision at a distance. Optics Express. Vol. 22 Issue 21, Oct. 20, 2014. DOI:10.1364/OE.22.024914

** See 2009 NIST Tech Beat article, "NIST's LIDAR May Offer Peerless Precision in Remote Measurements," at NIST researchers also reported in 2013 that the LADAR system without the 3D imaging capability is accurate to within 1 micrometer (E. Baumann, F.R. Giorgetta, I. Coddington, L.C. Sinclair, K. Knabe, W.C. Swann and N.R. Newbury, Comb-calibrated frequency ­modulated continuous-wave LADAR for absolute distance measurements, Opt. Lett., vol. 38,no. 12, pp. 2026-2028).

*** This technique is called frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) laser detection and ranging (LADAR).


Media Contact: Laura Ost,, 303-497-4880

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BIRDS Is for Sustainability: New NIST Tool for Evaluating Building Performance, Trade-offs

Designing a building that simply meets local code requirements is not necessarily the optimal way to do it when you consider all the long-term costs. Now, building professionals in more than 200 U.S. cities can use a new database developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to evaluate whether it pays to exceed code requirements for energy efficiency by tallying expected costs, kilowatts expended, carbon emissions and other impacts over a planned commercial building's lifetime.

Credit: Custom bird home by Thomas Burke, Wilmington Del. Photo: Baum/NIST
View hi-resolution image

Called BIRDS (Building Industry Reporting and Design for Sustainability), NIST's new database and software tools are designed to assess three major determinants of building sustainability: energy, environmental and cost performance.

Focusing initially on 11 building prototypes that account for about half of U.S. new commercial construction annually, the online data package features an innovative "whole building measurement system." An integrated set of metrics gauges sustainability of materials and energy usage, assesses carbon footprints and 11 other indicators of environmental performance, and tabulates economic costs over nine different investment horizons.

BIRDS complements NIST's popular tool known as BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) that allows a user to measure economic and environmental impacts of building products, ranging from concretes to roof coverings to floor coverings.

Due to the complexity of a building and the hundreds or thousands of products that are required to construct and operate the structure, it is not feasible to use typical life-cycle assessment approaches to estimate its environmental performance.

Instead, BIRDS implements a novel hybrid life-cycle assessment (LCA) approach to evaluating the environmental performance of abuilding. The new tool combines two separate LCA approaches—"top-down" environmental input-output data and "bottom-up" process-based data—to calculate a more accurate environmental impact.

NIST's aim is to make LCA and life-cycle costing—analytical methods now mostly plied by specialists—more accessible with hands-on tools anyone can use to answer "what if" questions when planning or designing a new office building, retail store, or any of nine other types of commercial structures.

"BIRDS simultaneously considers environmental, energy and economic performance," explains Joshua Kneifel, the NIST economist who led development of the database and its measurement tools. "Measuring a building's sustainability performance required us to pay special attention to establishing consistency among its many dimensions."

"The metrics are solidly based on science," says Ravi S. Srinivasan, University of Florida assistant professor of low and net-zero energy buildings who beta-tested the tool. "Yet, BIRDS is very easy to use. By including operating energy use—as well as addressing the question, 'Can I get my money back?'—it helps moves life-cycle assessment out of the realm of primarily academics and researchers."

Performance trade-offs are inevitable during design and construction. BIRDS can help architects, builders, prospective owners, building code regulators and others strike an attractive balance between sometimes competing considerations.

"Buildings are complex systems, and how they perform is not simply the sum of their many parts," Kneifel explains. "With BIRDS, anyone can measure and compare operating energy use through detailed simulations, materials use through innovative life-cycle inventories, and building costs over time."

One key question that users can tackle with BIRDS is whether exceeding the energy efficiency requirements of local building codes yields a positive result—as defined by each user. Operating energy use can be assessed for five increasingly more stringent building energy standards. Four are successive versions (1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007) of a commercial building energy standard issued by ASHRAE,* a building technology standards organization.

As of December 2011, 40 states had adopted one of the four as the basis for their energy code for commercial buildings. Ten states did not have a building energy code, leaving cities and towns to adopt their own.

BIRDS's fifth and most energy-efficient standard is a 2009ASHRAE standard for high-performance green buildings.

Although bound by state or local codes, which set the minimum for energy efficiency, builders, regulators and others can use BIRDS to judge whether going beyond the current code would deliver operating energy savings that exceed the initial investment in energy upgrades.

Both the economic and environmental performance of buildings depends on the structure's function, size, location, and the efficiency of its energy technologies. BIRDS includes city-specific construction and energy costs and other local data, and allows users to home in on a particular city, state or climate zone, or they can broaden their perspective to a region or the entire nation.

Similarly, the new tools open a window on the cascading effects of design decisions—how building to one or another energy standard affects everything from cost to water use to impact on air quality.

"The ultimate goal of BIRDS is to help people make informed choices," Kneifel says. He encourages building professionals and others to check out the database and test their own "what if" building scenarios.

BIRDS will grow more robust and add new capabilities in future versions, first by adding the building types needed to fully represent the nation's stock of 5 million commercial buildings. Coming versions will include new houses and, then, energy retrofits for existing homes and commercial buildings. Additional flexibility will be incorporated to give users greater ability to customize the analysis to their specific situation and interests.

* ASHRAE Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings (ASHRAE-90.1). For more information:

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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NIST Quantum Probe Enhances Electric Field Measurements

Animation of NIST's new method for measuring electric field strength based on the quantum properties of atoms. The technique works for abroad range of frequencies, 1-500 gigahertz, and directly links measurements to the International System of Units. The method could improve the sensitivity, precision and ease of tests and calibrations of antennas, sensors, and other systems.

Credit: Sean Kelley/NIST

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Michigan have demonstrated a technique based on the quantum properties of atoms that directly links measurements of electric field strength to the International System of Units (SI).*

The new method could improve the sensitivity, precision and ease of tests and calibrations of antennas, sensors, and biomedical and nano-electronic systems and facilitate the design of novel devices.

Conventional electric field probes have limited frequency range and sensitivity, often disturb the field being measured, and require laboratory calibrations that are inherently imprecise (because the reference field depends on the geometry of the source). Furthermore, linking these measurements to SI units, the highest level of calibration, is a complex process.

NIST's new electric-field probe spans enormous ranges. It can measure the strength of fields from 1 to 500 gigahertz, including the radio, microwave, millimeter-wave and sub-terahertz bands. It can measure fields up to 100 times weaker than conventional methods can (as weak as 0.8millivolts per meter, the SI unit of measure). Researchers used the new method to measure field strengths for a wide range of frequencies, and the results agreed with both numerical simulations and calculations.

Importantly, the new method can calibrate itself, as well as other instruments, because it is based on predictable quantum properties: vibrations in atoms as they switch between energy levels. This self-calibration feature improves measurement precision and may make traceable calibrations possible in the millimeter and sub-terahertz bands of the spectrum for the first time.

"The exciting aspect of this approach is that an atom is rich in the number of transitions that can be excited," NIST project leader Chris Holloway says. "This results in a broadband measurement probe covering a frequency range of 1 to 500 gigahertz and possibly up to 1 terahertz."

The NIST instrument currently is tabletop sized, but researchers are working on miniaturizing it using photonic structures.

The basic method has already been demonstrated for imaging applications.** Briefly, researchers use a red and a blue laser to prepare atoms contained in a cylinder to high-energy ("Rydberg") states, which have novel properties such as extreme sensitivity and reactivity to electromagnetic fields. An antenna or other source generates an electric field, which, depending on its frequency, affects the spectrum of light absorbed by the atoms. By measuring this effect, researchers can calculate the field strength. Various atoms can be used—NIST uses rubidium or cesium—to measure field strength in different parts of the frequency spectrum.

Among possible applications, the NIST probe may be suitable for measuring and optimizing compatibility in densely packaged electronics that include radar and wireless communications and control links, and for integration into endoscopic probes with medical applications such as investigating implants in the body. The technique might also be included in a future "NIST on a chip" offering multiple measurement methods and standards in a portable form.

Importantly, the technique also enables, for the first time, calibrated measurements of frequencies above 100 GHZ, in the millimeter wave and sub-terahertz bands.*** This capability will be crucial for the development of advanced communications systems and climate change research, among other applications.

Five co-authors of the new paper are with the University of Michigan, which provided the blue laser and aided in the experiments. The project is funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

* C.L. Holloway, J.A. Gordon, S. Jefferts, A. Schwarzkopf, D. A. Anderson, S.A. Miller, N. Thaicharoen and G. Raithelet. Broadband Rydbergatom-based electric-field probe: From self-calibrated measurements to sub-wavelength imaging. IEEE Trans. on Antennas and Propagation. 99. Accepted for publication. DOI: 10.1109/TAP.2014.2360208.
** See 2014 NIST Tech Beat article, "NIST Technique Could Make Sub-wavelength Images at Radio Frequencies," at
*** J.A. Gordon, C.L. Holloway, A. Schwarzkopf, D. A. Anderson, S. Miller, N. Thaicharoen and G. Raithel. Millimeter wave detection via Autler-Townes splitting in rubidium Rydberg atoms. Applied Physics Letters, 2014. Vol. 105, Issue 2.DOI:10.1063/1.4890094.

Media Contact: Laura Ost,, 303-497-4880

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Introducing the League of SI Superheroes: The New Champions of Metric

To celebrate Metric Week (Oct. 5-11), the National Institute of Standards and Technology would like to introduce you to the League of SI Superheroes. The League of SI Superheroes use their incredible powers of measurement to perform amazing feats of science and engineering.

Measurement is an incredibly powerful tool. Measurements are how we describe what we know, uncover what we don’t know, ensure quality and enable creativity.

Rear Admiral and computing pioneer Grace Hopper famously said, “One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions.” What she meant is that opinions are fine, and expert opinions are even better, but they aren’t knowledge until there are measurements to back them up.

The customary units in the United States grew out of our everyday experience. Gallons, feet and pounds were conveniences based on prescientific notions of accuracy and repeatability that served, and continue to serve, people’s everyday needs adequately enough (though their continued use does act as a barrier to trade and can occasionally lead to mishaps).

It was around the time of the Enlightenment that people began to get serious about measurement. Scientists realized that they needed a rational set of interrelated measures rooted in natural constants if they were going to make any further progress. This was the driving force behind the creation of the International System of Units, or SI, which, even though its use is not mandatory, serves as the foundation for all the traditional units with which we in the United States are most familiar.

Some of the most famous figures in science have lent their skills (and their names) to the SI, and the drive to improve those and related measurements has led to groundbreaking scientific and technological achievements, including four Nobel Prizes (and counting) for NIST scientists.

Today, we welcome the newest champions of measurement, the League of SI Superheroes. Emerging from their environmentally shielded headquarters around the globe, the superheroes are dedicated to the fight against uncertainty, imprecision and inaccuracy and to improving the quality of our lives and the things we build.

The League of SI Superheroes was designed to encourage students to learn about metric measurements as they consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. SI familiarity and fluency must be developed along the STEM career pipeline to prepare the future workers with essential measurement skills.

Educators are encouraged to use this resource in their classrooms when introducing the seven base SI units to students.

Ms. AmpereThe League of SI Superheroes are:

Meter Man: With his laser interferometer eyes, graduated arms and extendable body, no dimension is too big or too small for Meter Man to measure.

The Mole: Able to sniff out and count the atoms of every element, the Mole is a master of chemistry.

Professor Second: By reading the vibrations of her laser-cooled cesium atoms, Professor Second can synchronize any frequency and calibrate any clock.

Monsieur Kilogram: Monsieur Kilogram loves lifting weights, and it shows. With his balance scale arms, no mass is too big or too small for him measure.

Ms. Ampere: Ms. Ampere rules the flow of electrons—electrical current—and makes sure that the right amount gets where it needs to go.

Dr. Kelvin: Dr. Kelvin heats up or cools down objects by speeding up or slowing down the particles inside them. He can also measure the temperature of anything in the universe with his trusty thermometer.

Candela: Don’t let her small size fool you. Candela’s power over light helps to brighten the whole world.

The League of SI Superheroes’ work is never done. They toil tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure the measurements that interweave our lives are as accurate and precise as possible. And they hope to release another of their harrowing adventures to the public soon.

In the meantime, watch their pilot episode, Desperate Measures, and let them know what you think about their work. And be sure to let them know if you are in need of their assistance.

If you would like to learn more about the SI, check out these fine resources:

Teachers can also request a classroom set of SI educational materials by submitting their contact information and grade level to

More information about Metric Week can be found at these sites:

See you soon!

Media Contact: Mark Esser,, 301-975-8735

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NIST's 3rd Disaster Resilience Workshop Set for Oct. 27-28, in Norman, Okla.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)will hold the third in a series of regional workshops devoted to developing a community-centric "disaster resilience framework" to reduce the impacts of hazardous events and quickly restore vital functions and services in the aftermath of disasters. The workshop will be held on Oct. 27-28, 2014, in Norman, Okla.

As part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, NIST is leading a collaborative nationwide effort to develop a framework that U.S. communities can use to prepare for, resist, respond to and recover from hazard events more rapidly and at a lower cost.

Community disaster resilience not only includes efforts to reduce the risk of hazards and their destructive consequences, but also measures to ensure that the community recovers to normal—or near normal—levels of function in a reasonable time frame.

In breakout sessions, participants will help to develop sections of the framework, which will focus on communities, including buildings and facilities, transportation systems, energy systems, communication and information systems, water and wastewater systems and social aspects of resilience. Each breakout will address performance goals and interdependencies between sectors.

Additionally, two breakout sessions will focus on the Disaster Resilience Standards Panel (DRSP) and on resilience tools and metrics. The DRSP breakout group will further develop a draft charter document with proposed vision, mission, and organizational structure to support the panel in continuing to develop the framework, as well as guidance to support its implementation.

A plenary session on the first day of the workshop will feature an interview with a representative of the City of Moore, Okla., which experienced a deadly and destructive tornado in 2013, and an emergency management official from Joplin/Jasper County, Mo., site of a devastating tornado in 2011.

NIST seeks input from a broad array of stakeholders, including planners, designers, facility owners and users, government officials, utility owners, regulators, standards and model code developers, insurers, trade and professional associations, disaster response and recovery groups, and researchers.

The disaster resilience framework will establish overall performance goals; assess existing standards, codes, and practices; and identify gaps that must be addressed to bolster community resilience. NIST will incorporate input from this workshop into the initial draft framework, which will be issued for public comment in April 2015.

The workshop will be held at the National Center for Employee Development Conference Center and Hotel. To access the registration site and to view the agenda, go to:

To learn more about NIST's Disaster Resilience Program, go to:

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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NIST Releases Final Version of Smart Grid Framework, Update 3.0

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published its NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, Release 3.0, a document that reflects advances in smart grid technologies and developments from NIST’s collaborative work with industry stakeholders. Revisions to its guidelines for smart grid cybersecurity are available as well.

power lines
credit: ©chalermchai k/Fotolia

The 3.0 framework updates the plan for transforming the nation's aging electric power system into an interoperable smart grid—a network that will integrate information and communication technologies with the power-delivery infrastructure, enabling two-way flows of energy and communications. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 established a goal to modernize the nation’s electricity system and assigned to NIST the primary responsibility to coordinate development of a framework to achieve interoperability of smart grid devices and systems.

The document first appeared in January 2010 and was last updated in February 2012 to its 2.0 version. The 3.0 version was needed in part because of recent progress in grid modernization, including the following developments:

  • In the past few years, the nation has seen wide deployment of smart electric meters as well as devices called phasor measurement units. These devices, also called synchrophasors, help engineers monitor the flow of electricity at various points in the grid to better maintain grid stability and increase grid efficiency. The 3.0 framework addresses these deployments.
  • NIST has identified new standards that support interoperability of the smart grid. This list now includes 74 standards and protocols, including seven standards not listed in the 2.0 framework.
  • Significant updates have been made to the reference architecture model of the smart grid. This model, which offers a broad picture of how the fundamental elements of the smart grid connect and communicate, has now been harmonized with a similar model being developed by the European Community. The updated model reflects the growing importance of “distributed energy resources,” which include nontraditional sources such as customer-owned solar and wind power systems.
  • New developments and publications in smart grid cybersecurity are documented in the 3.0 framework. In particular, the role of smart grid cybersecurity is discussed in the context of cybersecurity of other critical infrastructures.
  • Testing and certification is taking on increased urgency as industry reaches consensus on the underlying standards for the smart grid, and the 3.0 framework includes an expanded discussion of this topic. Version 2 of the “Interoperability Process Reference Manual” provides a guide for those setting up new test programs or improving existing ones.

The document incorporates public responses to the 3.0 framework’s draft version, collected during the official comment period earlier this year. The framework 3.0 document is available at

NIST also has published a revision to its Guidelines for Smart Grid Cybersecurity (NISTIR 7628), the original version of which appeared in 2010. NISTIR 7628 Rev. 1 updates include new sections describing the relationship of smart grid cybersecurity to the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, cyber-physical attacks, cybersecurity testing and certification, and address regulatory changes involving privacy. NISTIR 7628 Rev. 1 is available at

Media Contact: Chad Boutin,, 301-975-4261

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Eligibility Requirements Revised for 2015 Baldrige Award

The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, the component of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that manages the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in cooperation with the private sector, has announced three changes in the eligibility requirements for the 2015 award. These improvements will expand opportunities for high-performing organizations to apply for the nation’s highest honor recognizing organizational performance excellence and innovation.

The 2015 changes to Baldrige Award eligibility requirements are based on customer and stakeholder input. They:

  • Allow an organization showing a high level of maturity and superior performance metrics to apply for a waiver of the standard requirement of first achieving a top-level award sanctioned by the Alliance for Performance Excellence (a body made up of the 30-plus state, local, regional and sector-specific Baldrige-based programs serving nearly all 50 states);
  • Make prior Baldrige Award recipients qualified to reapply after 5 years no matter what new or revised eligibility requirements are established; and
  • Base the eligibility of an organizational subunit (such as an individual business unit within a larger manufacturing company) solely on its ability to respond to the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence rather than its size or the percentage of external customers its serves.

A fact sheet detailing the changes to the eligibility requirements is available at

The exemption from the requirement that national award applicants be previous Alliance award program honorees is primarily intended to open the process to qualifying organizations that are not working with an Alliance program.

All applicants for the Baldrige Award are evaluated rigorously by an independent board of examiners in seven areas defined by the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence: leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; workforce focus; operations focus; and results.

The program helps U.S. organizations succeed in today's competitive marketplace by providing organizational assessment tools and criteria; educating leaders in businesses, schools, health care organizations, and government and nonprofit organizations about the practices of national role models; and recognizing them with the Baldrige Award in six categories: manufacturing, service, small business, health care, education and nonprofit.

The Baldrige Award, established by Congress in 1987, is not given for specific products or services. Since the first group was recognized in 1988, 101 awards have been presented to 95 organizations (including six repeat winners).

Organizations interested in applying for the 2015 Baldrige Award will be able to download the award eligibility and application forms from the Baldrige Program website,, in late October, 2014. To receive an e-mail message announcing the availability of the forms, and later, the latest Baldrige Criteria (being revised for 2015-2016), check “Baldrige Performance Excellence Program” in the list of subscriptions (after submitting your e-mail address) at

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman,, 301-975-3025

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