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Tech Beat - July 14, 2009

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: January 3, 2011
Date Modified: January 3, 2011 
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NIST Releases Vitamin D Standard Reference Material

Responding to concerns about the quality and accuracy of methods used by testing laboratories to measure levels of vitamin D in the body, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements, have developed a new reference sample for vitamin D in blood serum to help laboratories validate the accuracy of their test methods. NIST Standard Reference Material (SRM) 972, “Vitamin D in Human Serum,” represents a first step toward standardization of vitamin D testing.

vials of vitamin D serum SRM

Scientists at NIST and NIH have developed a new Standard Reference Material, SRM 972, Vitamin D in Human Serum, to help laboratories validate the accuracy of their test methods. More accurate laboratory results should make is easier for physicians to diagnose vitamin D deficiency and aid research related to vitamin D in general.

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Vitamin D is a nutrient necessary for good health, but it can be toxic in large doses. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, which promotes proper bone formation in children and helps to maintain bone strength in adults. Studies suggest that vitamin D may also be vital to a number of physiological processes, including proper functioning of the immune system and regulation of the life cycle of cells. There are two forms of vitamin D, known as vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 that contribute to the human body’s supply of vitamin D. Sources of vitamin D include food, dietary supplements and exposure to sunlight.

There has been a marked increase in clinical laboratory testing for vitamin D levels in blood in recent years. This is due in part to evidence that vitamin D deficiency may be more common than previously thought and because clinical studies have suggested that sub-optimal levels of vitamin D may be associated with an increased risk of certain diseases. In order to evaluate a person’s vitamin D levels, a metabolite known as 25-hydroxyvitamin D, or 25(OH)D, is measured.

Although test methods are readily available for measurement of 25(OH)D, no standardization of 25(OH)D methods currently exists. As a result, “normal” range indicated by measurements from one test method may be different from that of another. This situation can pose problems for physicians attempting to interpret the results from vitamin D testing, and reliable diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency has remained problematic. Improving the accuracy and comparability of these different methods is considered essential for identifying those affected by vitamin D deficiency and for ongoing research related to potential benefits or dangers associated with vitamin D.

SRM 972, Vitamin D in Human Serum, consists of four blood serum sample pools (Level 1 – Level 4) with varying levels of 25(OH)D. SRM 972 has certified values for 25(OH)D2, 25(OH)D3, and 3-epi-25(OH)D3.

Standard Reference Materials are among the most widely distributed and used products from NIST. The agency prepares, analyzes and distributes more than 1,000 different materials that are used throughout the world to check the accuracy of instruments and test procedures used in manufacturing, clinical chemistry, environmental monitoring, electronics, criminal forensics and dozens of other fields. For more information, see NIST’s SRM Web page at http://ts.nist.gov/measurementservices/referencematerials. Technical details and ordering information for SRM 972, Vitamin D in Serum, can be found at https://www-s.nist.gov/srmors/view_detail.cfm?srm=972.

Media Contact: Mark Esser, mark.esser@nist.gov, 301-975-8735

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NCNR Reactor Relicensed by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

To explore the structure and dynamics of novel materials, the more than two dozen scientific instruments at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)'s Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) all depend on one thing: a steady supply of neutrons from the center’s research reactor. On July 9 NCNR scientists and the scientific community learned they will be able to depend on their neutron source for at least another two decades.

photo of NRC delegation

NCNR's Dan Neumann (left) explains some of the benefits of cold neutron science to a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee delegation present for the relicensing ceremony. The delegation included (L-R) William Borchardt, Katherine Brock, William Kennedy and Timothy McGinty.

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Neutron beams from the research reactor are applied to study problems ranging from biology to materials science. Recent NCNR advances include the discovery of a material that may one day enable household refrigerators to cool with magnets, increasing efficiency, as well as the characterization of magnetic nanoparticles that are being studied for cancer therapies that could kill diseased cells without damaging nearby healthy tissue.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently completed its extensive review of the research reactor, which has just been relicensed to continue operation until July 2029. NIST marked the event with a brief ceremony, during which NCNR Acting Director Robert Dimeo acknowledged the contributions of those who have helped the facility grow in size and technical capabilities since its previous relicensing in 1984.

The rigorous relicensing process took the better part of nine years, which required NCNR staff, particularly the Reactor Operations and Engineering Group, to run the research reactor through a gauntlet of safety analyses that were then independently verified by technical experts hired by NRC.

“In essence, we had to demonstrate that the reactor was as safe to operate as it was in 1967, when it was first built,” says NCNR’s Michael Rowe. “This was not a simple process, and we went through many rounds of questions with the NRC to ensure all of their concerns were addressed.”

In the end, NRC concluded that the research reactor can be operated for the period of extended operation without undue risk to the health and safety of the public. The relicensing clears the way for the remainder of the NCNR’s current expansion project, a 30 percent increase in the space available for instruments at the facility’s “cold neutron” guide hall. Cold neutrons, with their long wavelengths, are very well suited for probing nanoscale systems.

“We are currently oversubscribed by more than a factor of two,” says NCNR’s Dan Neumann. “There is clearly a scientific demand for this increased capacity.”

Media Contact: Chad Boutin, boutin@nist.gov, 301-975-4261

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New Report on Improving Software Tools that Improve Software

If the shiny new software on your computer or mobile phone runs without crashing, you may have another computer program to thank--a static analyzer. Static analyzers try to find weaknesses in other programs that could be triggered accidentally or exploited by hackers. A new report* by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) documents the Static Analysis Tool Exposition (SATE), an exercise by NIST and static analyzer vendors to improve the performance of these tools.

The report is the culmination of a lengthy effort to host and then digest the results of SATE, begun in February 2008 to help toolmakers assess their products’ ability to find security defects in other software. Eight tool developers, along with a ninth team of professional human reviewers, participated in SATE, which provided a non-competitive environment for the vendors to compare their program analysis techniques for the benefit of the entire group.

Software assurance tools may be obscure outside the world of professional software development. However, their importance has increased as programs grow longer, more sophisticated, and increasingly are required to interact with other programs over computer networks. The number and subtlety of attacks from hackers has also increased. Because it is impossible to anticipate every combination of inputs a given piece of software might receive, static analyzers attempt to use mathematical and logical tools to rigorously predict the behavior of the program and examine it for weaknesses based on its code or set of instructions.

NIST software assurance expert Vadim Okun says SATE was a long-overdue idea.

“Most modern software is too lengthy and complex to analyze by hand,” says Okun. “Additionally, programs that would have been considered secure ten years ago may now be vulnerable to hackers. We’re trying to focus on identifying what in a program’s code might be exploitable.”

The participating vendors brought a range of tools that possessed different features and analyzed programs written in two different languages. According to Okun, the depth of the field made SATE as much a learning experience for the NIST team as it was for the participants.

“We intend to hold more expositions in the future and will use this experience to help shape their focus,” Okun says.

And according to the organizers and several participants, a good deal of research remains to be done. The effort was not only highly demanding, but it also showed some goals may be out of reach. While users want static analyzers to find all the problems in a piece of software, but also raise no false alarms, “that’s not achievable,” Okun says. “We want to show people that this isn’t a trivial process, but the tools are improving and it makes good sense to use them.”

The SATE report is available online at http://samate.nist.gov/docs/NIST_Special_Publication_500-279.pdf. NIST is planning the next SATE and invites tool makers interested in participating to get in touch with Okun at vadim.okun@nist.gov or (301) 975-3268.

* V. Okun, R. Gaucher and P.E. Black (editors). Static Analysis Tool Exposition (SATE). NIST Special Publication 500-279. June 30, 2009.

Media Contact: Chad Boutin, boutin@nist.gov, 301-975-4261

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2009 Baldrige Improvement Day Goes Virtual, Seeks Participants

The Baldrige National Quality Program (BNQP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) collects suggestions throughout the year on opportunities for improving the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, the Baldrige National Quality Award processes and other key program activities. Traditionally, the Baldrige Program has held an annual “Improvement Day” at the NIST Gaithersburg, Md., campus for interested stakeholders to review, consolidate, filter, prioritize and recommend which of these suggestions should be implemented.

To broaden the access to “Improvement Day” this year, the Baldrige Program has turned it into a virtual event with sessions scheduled for Aug. 3 (1-4 p.m. Eastern Time), Aug. 6 (2-5 p.m. Eastern Time) and Aug. 11 (2-5 p.m. Eastern Time). A Web-based brainstorming/decision-making tool will facilitate the review and recommendation process while participants interact via a conference call.

Anyone interested in being part of the virtual “Baldrige Improvement Day,” should contact Bob Fangmeyer, robert.fangmeyer@nist.gov, (301) 975-4781, for a Web address and passcode to the session you would like to attend.

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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Physicists Find Way to Control Individual Bits in Quantum Computers

Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have overcome a hurdle in quantum computer development, having devised* a viable way to manipulate a single "bit" in a quantum processor without disturbing the information stored in its neighbors. The approach, which makes novel use of polarized light to create "effective" magnetic fields, could bring the long-sought computers a step closer to reality.

optical lattice

Optical lattices use lasers to separate rubidium atoms (red) for use as information “bits” in neutral-atom quantum processors—prototype devices that designers are trying to develop into full-fledged quantum computers. NIST scientists have managed to isolate and control pairs of the rubidium atoms with polarized light, an advance that may bring quantum computing a step closer to reality.

Credit: NIST
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A great challenge in creating a working quantum computer is maintaining control over the carriers of information, the “switches” in a quantum processor, while isolating them from the environment. These quantum bits, or “qubits,” have the uncanny ability to exist in both “on” and “off” positions simultaneously, giving quantum computers the power to solve problems conventional computers find intractable—such as breaking complex cryptographic codes.

One approach to quantum computer development aims to use a single isolated rubidium atom as a qubit. Each such rubidium atom can take on any of eight different energy states, so the design goal is to choose two of these energy states to represent the on and off positions. Ideally, these two states should be completely insensitive to stray magnetic fields that can destroy the qubit’s ability to be simultaneously on and off, ruining calculations. However, choosing such “field-insensitive” states also makes the qubits less sensitive to those magnetic fields used intentionally to select and manipulate them.

“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” says NIST’s Nathan Lundblad. “The more sensitive to individual control you make the qubits, the more difficult it becomes to make them work properly.”

To solve the problem of using magnetic fields to control the individual atoms while keeping stray fields at bay, the NIST team used two pairs of energy states within the same atom. Each pair is best suited to a different task:  One pair is used as a “memory” qubit for storing information, while the second “working” pair comprises a qubit to be used for computation. While each pair of states is field-insensitive, transitions between the memory and working states are sensitive and amenable to field control. When a memory qubit needs to perform a computation, a magnetic field can make it change hats. And it can do this without disturbing nearby memory qubits.

The NIST team demonstrated this approach in an array of atoms grouped into pairs, using the technique to address one member of each pair individually. Grouping the atoms into pairs, Lundblad says, allows the team to simplify the problem from selecting one qubit out of many to selecting one out of two—which, as they show in their paper, can be done by creating an effective magnetic field, not with electric current as is ordinarily done, but with a beam of polarized light. The polarized-light technique, which the NIST team developed, can be extended to select specific qubits out of a large group, making it useful for addressing individual qubits in a quantum processor without affecting those nearby.

“If a working quantum computer is ever to be built,” Lundblad says, “these problems need to be addressed, and we think we’ve made a good case for how to do it.” But, he adds, the long-term challenge to quantum computing remains: integrating all of the required ingredients into a single apparatus with many qubits.

*N. Lundblad, J.M. Obrecht, I.B. Spielman and J.V. Porto. Field-sensitive addressing and control of field-insensitive neutral-atom qubits. Nature Physics, July 5, 2009.

Media Contact: Chad Boutin, boutin@nist.gov, 301-975-4261

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Quicklinks

NYPD Report on Protecting Buildings Adopts NIST WTC Recommendations

A recently released New York City Police Department (NYPD) report designed "to aid the New York City building community by providing information on how to prevent and mitigate the effects of a terrorist attack on a building" states that many of its guidelines incorporate recommendations and best practices developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The NIST recommendations were a result of the agency’s six-year investigation of the collapses of three World Trade Center (WTC) buildings following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The NYPD report, Engineering Security: Protective Design for High Risk Buildings may be downloaded at www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/counterterrorism/engineeringsecurity.shtml. Information on NIST’s WTC investigation is available at http://wtc.nist.gov. For a list of the NIST recommendations for building codes and standards, see “NIST’s Recommendations Following the Federal Building and Fire Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster” at http://wtc.nist.gov/recommendations/recommendations.htm.

Media Contact: Michael Baum, baum@nist.gov, 301-975-2763

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Three NIST Researchers Win 2008 PECASE Honors

Three scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have won Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the nation’s highest honor recognizing extraordinary achievements of young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers. The White House announced the 2008 awards on July 9, 2009.

The NIST winners are Craig Brown, a chemist who studies materials for energy applications at the NIST Center for Neutron Research; Dean DeLongchamp, a chemical engineer who works on organic (carbon-based) electronic devices for such applications as flexible displays and solar cells at the NIST Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory, and Till P. Rosenband, a scientist who is helping to develop future-generation quantum logic clocks in the NIST Physics Laboratory.

PECASE was established in 1996. NIST is among nine federal departments and agencies that annually nominate scientists and engineers whose work shows exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge. Winners will receive five years of designated funding from their sponsoring agencies to further their research in support of critical government missions.

For further information, see the white House news release, “President Honors Outstanding Early-Career Scientists” at www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/PRESIDENT-HONORS-OUTSTANDING-EARLY-CAREER-SCIENTISTS/.

Media Contact: Ben Stein, ben.stein@nist.gov, 301-975-3097

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New Baldrige Brochure Helps Steer Organizations Toward Excellence

If your organization is eager to learn about how the Baldrige Criteria can help chart a course toward innovation and performance excellence, then a new brochure from the Baldrige National Quality Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) may be just what you need.

Your Guide to Performance Excellence briefly describes the Baldrige Program, defines performance excellence and enumerates what the Baldrige Criteria offer organizations. No matter if an organization is new to the criteria or a veteran traveler on the Baldrige journey, the information in the brochure shows the benefits of a Baldrige self-assessment, and the tools, approaches and resources available to make self-assessment effective and easy to quickly achieve results.

The brochure folder includes a CD containing the three 2009-2010 Baldrige Criteria (business and nonprofit, health care and education), a complete set of CEO Issue Sheets and Baldrige improvement tools.

A downloadable copy of the text of Your Guide to Performance Excellence is available at www.nist.gov/baldrige/publications/your_guide.cfm. To order free copies of the brochure folder with the enclosed CD, call (301) 975-2036 or send an e-mail to baldrige@nist.gov.

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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