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Tech Beat - July 21, 2010

Tech Beat Archives

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: August 4, 2010
Date Modified: August 4, 2010 
Contact: inquiries@nist.gov

Breaking the Language Barrier: NIST Tests Afghan Language Translation Devices for U.S. Troops

At dusk, a car stops at a checkpoint in Afghanistan. It is a tense moment for all. Because an interpreter is not available, U.S. Marines use hand gestures to ask the driver to step out of the car and open the trunk and hood for inspection. There’s a lot of room for error.

This scene was re-enacted recently during an evaluation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—but, this time, the Marine had a new smart phone-based device that translates his English into the driver’s native Pashto and the Pashto back into English.

For the past four years, scientists at NIST have been conducting detailed performance evaluations of speech translation systems for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Previous systems used microphones and portable computers. In the most recent tests, the NIST team evaluated three two-way, real-time, voice-translation devices designed to improve communications between the U.S. military and non-English speakers in foreign countries.

Traditionally, the military has relied on human translators for communicating with non-English speakers in foreign countries, but the job is dangerous and skilled translators often are in short supply. And, sometimes, translators may have ulterior motives, according to NIST’s Brian Weiss. The DARPA project, called TRANSTAC (spoken language communication and TRANSlation system for TACtical use), aims to provide a technology-based solution. Currently, the focus is on Pashto, a native Afghani tongue, but NIST has also assessed machine translation systems for Dari—also spoken in Afghanistan—and Iraqi Arabic.

a U.S. Marine and a native Pashto speaker

A U.S. Marine and a native Pashto speaker converse using a smart phone voice translation system as part of an evaluation of the technology recently conducted by NIST for the Defense Department.

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Credit: NIST

All new TRANSTAC systems all work much the same way, says project manager Craig Schlenoff. An English speaker talks into the phone. Automatic speech recognition distinguishes what is said and generates a text file that software translates to the target language. Text-to-speech technology converts the resulting text file into an oral response in the foreign language. This process is reversed for the foreign language speaker.

NIST researchers held focus groups with U.S. military personnel who have served overseas to determine critical communication interactions to simulate and evaluate in tests. The research team then devised 25 scenarios for evaluating the performance of translation devices. These included vehicle checkpoints; communication of key information, such as how long electricity will be available each day; facility inspections; medical assessments; and Afghani-U.S. military training exercises. Marines experienced in these tasks and native Kandahari-dialect Pashto speakers acted out the scenarios without a script. Each scenario was performed using the three industry-developed translation devices.

For each test, on-site judges observed the scenarios, and the participating Marines and Pashto speakers were surveyed about the ease of interaction with the systems. Later, a separate panel of judges fluent in English and Pashto viewed videos of the exercise and evaluated each of the three systems in terms how accurately concepts were communicated in both languages, Schlenoff says.

“We are writing a detailed assessment of the evaluation for DARPA so they can make an informed decision to determine where to direct funds and efforts in the TRANSTAC project,” says Schlenoff.

Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, evelyn.brown@nist.gov, 301-975-5661

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Nano 'Pin Art': NIST Arrays Are Step Toward Mass Production of Nanowires

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have cultivated many thousands of nanocrystals in what looks like a pinscreen or "pin art" on silicon, a step toward reliable mass production of semiconductor nanowires for millionths-of-a-meter-scale devices such as sensors and lasers.

colorized micrograph of semiconductor nanowires

Colorized micrograph of semiconductor nanowires grown at NIST in a precisely controlled array of sizes and locations.

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Credit: K. Bertness/NIST

NIST researchers grow nanowires made of semiconductors—gallium nitride alloys—by depositing atoms layer-by-layer on a silicon crystal under high vacuum. NIST has the unusual capability to produce these nanowires without using metal catalysts, thereby enhancing luminescence and reducing defects. NIST nanowires also have excellent mechanical quality factors.

The latest experiments, described in Advanced Functional Materials,* maintained the purity and defect-free crystal structure of NIST nanowires while controlling diameter and placement better than has been reported by other groups for catalyst-based nanowires. Precise control of diameter and placement is essential before nanowires can be widely used.

The key trick in the NIST technique is to grow the wires through precisely defined holes in a stencil-like mask covering the silicon wafer. The NIST nanowires were grown through openings in patterned silicon nitride masks. About 30,000 nanowires were grown per 76-millimeter-wide wafer. The technique controlled nanowire location almost perfectly. Wires grew uniformly through most openings and were absent on most of the mask surface.

Mask openings ranged from 300 to 1000 nanometers (nm) wide, in increments of 100 nm. In each opening of 300 nm or 400 nm, a single nanowire grew, with a well-formed hexagonal shape and a symmetrical tip with six facets. Larger openings produced more variable results. Openings of 400 nm to 900 nm yielded single-crystal nanowires with multifaceted tops. Structures grown in 1,000-nm openings appeared to be multiple wires stuck together. All nanowires grew to about 1,000 nm tall over three days.

NIST researchers analyzed micrographs to verify the uniformity of nanowire shape and size statistically. The analysis revealed nearly uniform areas of wires of the same diameter as well as nearly perfect hexagonal shapes.

Growing nanowires on silicon is one approach NIST researchers are exploring for making "nanowires on a chip" devices. Although the growth temperatures are too high—over 800 degrees Celsius—for silicon circuitry to tolerate, there may be ways to grow the nanowires first and then protect them during circuitry fabrication, lead author Kris Bertness says. The research was partially supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Center on NanoscaleScience and Technology for Integrated Micro/Nano-Electromechanical Transducers (iMINT) at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

* K. A. Bertness, A. W. Sanders, D. M. Rourke, T. E. Harvey, A. Roshko, J.B. Schlager and N. A. Sanford. Controlled nucleation of GaN nanowires grown with molecular beam epitaxy. Advanced Functional Materials. Published online: July 13, 2010. DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201000381

Media Contact: Laura Ost, laura.ost@nist.gov, 303-497-4880

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Body of Evidence: New Fast, Reliable Method to Detect Gravesoil

Nothing against bloodhounds, but finding bodies buried by someone who wanted them to stay undiscovered can be difficult. However a new technique developed by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), can reliably detect biochemical changes in a decomposing cadaver.

Typically, cadaver-sniffing dogs or ground penetrating radar are used to detect clandestine gravesites. But these methods are not always useful in all scenarios, such as if a body is buried under concrete. The NIST instrument is a modification of a technique developed at the lab to sense minute levels of difficult-to-detect chemical compounds. (See "Prototype NIST Method Detects and Measures Elusive Hazards," NIST Tech Beat, Sept. 8, 2009) The process uses an alumina-coated, porous layer, open tubular (PLOT) column with a motorized pipette that pulls in air samples at ambient temperatures. The device detects trace amounts of ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen (NRN) that collects in air pockets above and close to gravesoil. Previously, this process involved the tedious and expensive process of solvent extraction of soil samples. Now, a simple probe slightly thicker than a human hair can be inserted into the ground to detect decaying flesh.

Developed by NIST chemists Thomas J. Bruno and Tara M. Lovestead and spelled out in a paper published in Forensic Science International,* this is the only known example of detecting NRN in the vapor phase and gives detectives another tool for finding hidden graves. Moreover, Bruno said that the device can be used to detect a body buried under a concrete slab, merely by drilling a one-eighth-inch hole and inserting the probe, thereby eliminating the need for unnecessary digging.

Bruno and Lovestead used frozen, dead feeder rats for their study and took samples of rats buried under 8 centimeters of soil, laid on top of the soil and from boxes with no dead rats in them. They took samples at one week intervals for six weeks and then again at 10 and 20 weeks and found that after five weeks, the amount of NRN was at its highest, but it was still detectable after 20 weeks.

The device operates at room temperatures, as opposed to ultra-cold temperatures, which is a big plus for future portability as well as the fact that it employs chemicals already in use by law enforcement officials (ninhydrin reagent) for exposing latent fingerprints. Bruno is working on making a portable version of the instrument—at present only the sampling device is portable; testing of samples must still be done in the lab—giving this new device and detection process great promise for use by law enforcement officials in the field.

* T.M. Lovestead and T.J. Bruno. Detecting gravesoil with headspace analysis with adsorption on short porous layer open tubular (PLOT) columns. Forensic Science International. Published online: June 23, 2010.

Media Contact: James Burrus, james.burrus@nist.gov, 303-497-4789

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Some Like It Hot: How to Heat a 'Nano Bathtub' the JILA Way

Researchers at JILA have demonstrated the use of infrared laser light to quickly and precisely heat the water in "nano bathtubs"—tiny sample containers—for microscopy studies of the biochemistry of single molecules and nanoparticles.

illustration of infared laser light heating bathtub water

Infrared laser light heats the water in "nano bathtub" for JILA research on individual RNA molecules.

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Credit: K.Talbott/NIST

Described in a new paper,* the JILA technique is faster, more controllable, and less prone to damaging expensive optics or accidentally altering chemistry than conventional methods using electric currents for bulk heating of microscope stages, optics and samples. The demonstration extends a technique used to study single living cells to the field of single-molecule microscopy. Fast, noncontact heating of very small samples is expected to enable new types of experiments with single molecules. For example, sudden, controlled jumps in temperature could be used to activate molecular processes and observe them in real time.

JILA is jointly operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU).

The JILA "bathtubs" consist of about 35 picoliters (trillionths of a liter, or roughly one-thirtieth of a nanoliter) of water on a glass slide. Gently focused infrared laser light is used to heat a nanoscale column of water. By moving the laser beam, this column can be made to warm single RNA molecules attached to the slide. The samples are mounted above an inverted fluorescence microscope, used to study folding of tagged RNA molecules (See for example, "JILA Study of RNA Dynamics May Help in Drug Design," NIST Tech Beat, July 13, 2005 at http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/techbeat/tb2005_0713.htm#JILA). The researchers simultaneously heated and observed folding of the molecules, comparing results obtained with the laser heating technique to measurements obtained with bulk heating.

The heating laser is directed at the samples from above, with the beam focused to a spot size of about 20 micrometers. The near-infrared light is just the right wavelength to excite vibrations in chemical bonds in the water molecules; the vibrations quickly turn into heat. The laser offers a much larger dynamic temperature range (20 to 90 degrees Celsius, or 68 to 194 degrees Fahrenheit) than bulk heating methods, according to the paper. In early trials, the technique controlled bathtub heating to an accuracy of half a degree Celsius in less than 20 milliseconds across a micrometer-scale sample area.

"Exact sizes of the laser beam and sample area don't matter," says NIST/JILA Fellow David Nesbitt, senior author of the paper. "What's important is having time and temperature control over volumes of fluid small enough to be able to look at single molecules."

The research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NIST, and the W.M. Keck Foundation initiative in RNA sciences.

* E. D. Holmstrom and D.J. Nesbitt. Real-Time Infrared Overtone Laser Control of Temperature in Picoliter H2O Samples: "Nanobathtubs" for Single Molecule Microscopy. Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 1, pages 2264–2268. Published online: July 7, 2010.

Media Contact: Laura Ost, laura.ost@nist.gov, 303-497-4880

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New Draft Computer Security Document Focuses on Cloud Computing and Virtualization Technology

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has issued draft recommendations for securely configuring and using full virtualization technologies, which, by means of software, duplicate a computer's operating system and its applications on other machines.

Because it helps maximize the use and flexibility of computing resources—multiple operating systems can run simultaneously on the same hardware—full virtualization is considered a key technology for cloud computing, but it introduces new issues for IT security.

The proposed security recommendations are contained in the draft document, NIST Special Publication 800-125, Guide to Security for Full Virtualization Technologies. NIST is requesting public review of the new draft computer security publication and soliciting comments until August 13.

For cloud computing systems in particular, full virtualization can increase operational efficiency because it can optimize computer workloads and adjust the number of servers in use to match demand, thereby conserving energy and information technology resources. The guide describes security concerns associated with full virtualization technologies for server and desktop virtualization and provides recommendations for addressing these concerns.

Karen Scarfone, the publication's primary author, says that most existing recommended security practices also apply in virtual environments.

"The practices described in this document build on and assume the implementation of practices described in other NIST computer security publications," Scarfone says.

The guide is intended for system administrators, security program managers, security engineers and anyone else involved in designing, deploying or maintaining full virtualization technologies. In the draft, NIST recommends for organizations to:

  • Secure all elements of a full virtualization solution and maintain their security;
  • Restrict and protect administrator access to the virtualization solution;
  • Ensure that the hypervisor, the central program that runs the virtual environment, is properly secured; and
  • Carefully plan the security for a full virtualization solution before installing, configuring and deploying it.

The draft of NIST Special Publication 800-125, Guide to Security for Full Virtualization Technologies may be obtained from the NIST Computer Security Resource Center at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/PubsDrafts.html. Submit comments to 800-125comments@nist.gov with "Comments SP 800-125" in the subject line.

Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, evelyn.brown@nist.gov, 301-975-5661

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Economy, Energy and Environment: Going Green in the Black

The Economy, Energy, and Environment (E3) Initiative, a collaborative effort involving five federal agencies, state and local governments, utilities, and manufacturers to support sustainability, boost competitiveness, and spur job growth and innovation in local and regional economies while, recently completed successful pilot projects in Columbus, Ohio, and San Antonio, Texas.

project’s kickoff celebration

Alabama Governor Bob Riley and MEP Director Roger Kilmer join partners of the Alabama Technology Networks’ Alabama E3 Initiative for the project’s kickoff celebration and charter signing ceremony at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Ala., on May 26.

Credit: Barry Fikes Photography/B. Dill

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a partner in the effort, through its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program. Additional E3 pilot projects are under way in Alabama, Michigan, and West Virginia. Others, including California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, have expressed interest in starting E3 projects.

Leveraging the resources of the Department of Commerce, Small Business Administration, Department of Labor, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, the E3 Initiative will provide customized assistance to manufacturers as they act to improve their competitiveness and business performance. The process begins with a comprehensive assessment of a process or facility, focusing on lean manufacturing, energy use and environmental practices to identify opportunities for improvement. With a focus on continuous improvement, the team then works with the company to identify resources, available financing options, training and capacity building to support the implementation strategy.

Each federal partner brings its specific expertise and resources to this collaborative initiative. NIST MEP offers its more than 20 years of experience in helping their clients to reduce costs while growing their business through lean manufacturing and innovation. The Small Business Administration is providing counseling services and, as applicable and available, financing for business improvements through its loan programs and Small Business Development Centers. The Department of Labor coordinates with the team on training needs in support of the project and works to align with workforce development funding that may be available. The Department of Energy provides direct support through its Industrial Assessment Centers, it has additional programs, including the Industrial Technologies Program, Save Energy Now Leaders program, and Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, designed to help businesses improve energy efficiency and reduce energy use and emissions. Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency offers pollution prevention expertise through state-based experts and its Climate Leaders program, a partnership with industry that measures emissions and sets aggressive reduction goals.

“Sustainability has become a key driver of economic growth due to economic, environmental and societal challenges and opportunities,” says NIST MEP’s Alex Folk. “Our goal is to help companies gain a competitive edge and access to new markets by reducing environmental and energy costs through the development of new sustainable materials, products and processes. We see this as an opportunity to strategically re-position U.S. manufacturing.”

This year, NIST MEP has completed over 50 sustainability-related projects, with a goal of completing 100 by the end of the year. E3 is one of several partnerships through which MEP intends to meet these targets.

Companies interested in becoming involved in the E3 Initiative should contact Alex Folk, alex.folk@nist.gov, (301) 975-8089.

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

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Baldrige Fellows Programs Selects 14 Executives for First Class

The Baldrige Fellows, an executive development program centered on forming relationships with and learning from Baldrige National Quality Award recipient organizations and their senior executives, recently announced the 14 members of its initial class.

The first Baldrige Fellows are: Wayne Foraker, senior director, Office of Institutional Assessment, University of Phoenix; William Griffin, vice president of marketing, North America, AGCO Corp.; Donald Haag, vice president of Mid-West area, Packaging Corporation of America; Robert Hagans, chief financial officer, AARP; Ziad Haydar, vice president for clinical excellence and physician integration, Ascension Health; John McCarville, senior vice president of global supply chain and information technology, Griffith Laboratories; Margaret McGoldrick, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Abington Memorial Hospital; James Metcalf, president and chief operating officer, USG Corp.; Brad Mitchell, president of global logistics and distribution, UPS; Monty Pooley, president of North America retail, Sara Lee Corp.; John Smith, global product director for propylene oxide/propylene glycol, Dow Chemical Co.; Troy Villarreal, chief executive officer, The Medical Center of Plano (Texas), HCA Corp.; Russell Williams, director of quality, Baldor Electric Co; and Michael Woronka, chief executive officer, Action Ambulance Service.

The activities of the Baldrige Fellows Program are designed to accelerate the executive development of participants through exploration and application of the Baldrige framework, the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and the impact of systems thinking on organizations. To help translate lessons into actions for their organizations, Baldrige Fellows are paired with mentors who are either a senior executive from a Baldrige Award recipient organization or a member of the Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors. They also have numerous opportunities to network with and learn from each other.

The next class of Baldrige Fellows will begin in April 2012. For more information on the Baldrige Fellows Program, see the Web page at http://www.nist.gov/baldrige/fellows/index.cfm, or contact Bob Fangmeyer, robert.fangmeyer@nist.gov, (301) 975-4781, or the Baldrige Office, baldrige@nist.gov, (301) 975-2036.

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

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NIST Aids Enhancement of the Security and Stability of the Internet’s Domain Name System

On July 15, 2010, two Department of Commerce Agencies—the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—announced the completion of a major initiative to enhance the stability and security of the Internet.

The announcement marks full deployment of a security technology—Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC)—at the Internet’s authoritative root zone. The accomplishment will help protect Internet users against phishing and other types of cyber attacks. The Domain Name System (DNS) is akin to a global address book for the Internet. The authoritative root zone of the DNS is at the top level with links to addresses in lower-level books for individual countries (e.g., .us) and affinity groups (e.g., .edu).

“Improving the trustworthiness, robustness and scaling of the Internet’s core infrastructure is an activity that lines up strongly with NIST's mission, and we have been contributing to design, standardization and deployment of DNSSEC technology for several years,” said NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. “The deployment of DNSSEC at the root zone is the linchpin to facilitating its deployment throughout the world and enabling the current domain-name system to evolve into a significant new trust infrastructure for the Internet.”

The DNS is a critical component of the Internet infrastructure. “Every instance of communication over the Internet relies on the DNS to translate user-friendly domain names (e.g., www.nist.gov) into Internet Protocol address (e.g., necessary to route data to its destination, says Doug Montgomery, manager of NIST’s Internet and Scalable Systems Metrology Group.

“DNSSEC enables clients to cryptographically verify that each such translation is provided by a server with the authority to do so, and that the translation response from the server was not modified before reaching the client,” Montgomery said. “Without DNSSEC, it is relatively easy for third parties to purposefully manipulate DNS translations services— so as to redirect traffic or forge sites.”

DNS data authenticity is essential to Internet use. For example, it helps to ensure that Internet users are not unknowingly redirected to bogus and malicious websites.

The DNS was not designed with strong security mechanisms. Technological advances have made it easier to exploit vulnerabilities in the DNS protocol, putting DNS data at risk. Deploying DNSSEC, which is a suite of Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) specifications for securing information provided by the DNS, mitigates these vulnerabilities.

A main benefit of installing DNSSEC at the root zone is to facilitate greater DNSSEC deployment throughout the rest of the global DNS hierarchy.

Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, evelyn.brown@nist.gov, 301-975-5661

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NIST Nanoscale Dimensioning Technique Wins R&D 100 Award

A radical, new method developed at NIST that transforms the humble, ubiquitous and inexpensive optical microscope into a powerful three-dimensional nanoscale and microscale measurement device has won one of this year's prestigious "R&D 100 Awards." The annual R&D 100 Awards program recognizes "the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the market" during the previous year, as selected by an independent judging panel and the editors of R&D Magazine.

Ravikiran Attota

Ravikiran Attota, a lead researcher in NIST's Precision Engineering Division, won an R&D 100 Award for his development of the Through-Focus Scanning Optical Microscopy (TSOM), which has applications that cut across a range of industries, from biotechnology to semiconductors and photonics.

View hi-resolution image
Credit: NIST

Developed by Ravikiran Attota, a lead researcher in NIST's Precision Engineering Division, Through-Focus Scanning Optical Microscopy (TSOM) has applications that cut across a range of industries from biotechnology to semiconductors and photonics. TSOM can be used for defect analysis, inspection and process control, critical dimension metrology, photomask metrology, overlay registration metrology, nanoparticle metrology, film thickness metrology, 3-D interconnect metrology (large-range depth analysis such as through-silicon vias—TSVs), and line-edge roughness measurements.

The method uses a conventional bright field optical microscope, but rather than taking a "best focus" image, it collects 2-D images at different focal positions. A computer then extracts brightness profiles from these multiple out-of-focus images and uses the differences between them to construct the TSOM image.

This new imaging technology requires a research-quality optical microscope, a digital camera and a motorized microscope stage that can move up and down to preset distances.

"The method is relatively simple and inexpensive, has high throughput, and provides nanoscale sensitivity for 3-D measurements," says Attota. "It has the potential to save companies millions of dollars."

Read more about the award winners at R&D Magazine http://www.rdmag.com/News/2010/07/2010-R-D-100-Awards-Winners/.

For more information about Attota's technique, see http://www.nist.gov/pml/div683/grp03/upload/tsom-ravikiran-attota.pdf.

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

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