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Tech Beat - December 8, 2010

Tech Beat Archives

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: December 8, 2010
Date Modified: December 8, 2010 
Contact: inquiries@nist.gov

NIST's New Scanning Probe Microscope is Supercool

The discoveries of superconductivity, the quantum Hall effect and the fractional quantum Hall effect were all the result of measurements made at increasingly lower temperatures. Now, pushing the regime of the very cold into the very small, a research team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the University of Maryland, Janis Research Company, Inc., and Seoul National University, has designed and built the most advanced ultra-low temperature scanning probe microscope (ULTSPM) in the world.


The ULTSPM lab rests on a separate 110-ton concrete slab (1), supported by pneumatic isolators. Inner (2) and an outer (3) enclosures shield from acoustic noise, with the inner enclosure also acting as a radio-frequency shield. The microscope is mounted on a 6-ton granite table (4), also supported by pneumatic isolators. The cryostat (5) is mounted in a hole in the granite table and in the concrete slab on a third set of pneumatic isolators. Inside the cryostat, the dilution refrigerator insert (6) hangs immersed in the liquid helium bath. Samples from the processing lab enter the enclosed room through two hatches on the right via a central vacuum line (7).

Credit: NIST
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Detailed in a recent paper,* the ULTSPM operates at lower temperatures and higher magnetic fields than any other similar microscope, capabilities that enable the device to resolve energy levels separated by as small as 1 millionth of an electron volt. This extraordinary resolution has already resulted in the discovery of new physics (see "Puzzling New Physics from Graphene Quartet's Quantum Harmonies").

"To get these kinds of measurements, you need to combine coarse and extremely fine movement (the mechanical positioning of a probe tip about two atoms' distance from the sample surface), ultra-high vacuum, cryogenics and vibration isolation," says NIST Fellow Joseph Stroscio, one of the device's co-creators. "We designed this instrument to achieve superlative levels of performance, which, in turn, requires achieving nearly the ultimate in environmental control."

The NIST team had to overcome many technical challenges to achieve this level of precision and sensitivity, according to Young Jae Song, a postdoctoral researcher who helped develop the instrument at NIST.

Past designs used mechanical systems to move the probe tip that did not work over a wide range of temperatures. Researchers overcame this by creating piezoelectric actuators that expand with atomic scale precision when voltage is applied.

For vibration control, the group built the ULTSPM facility on top of a separate 110-ton concrete block buffered by six computer-controlled air springs. The ULTSPM, itself, sits on a 6-ton granite table, isolated from the concrete block by another set of computer-controlled air springs.

To achieve the ULTSPM's ultra low operating temperature of 10 millikelvins, the team designed a low noise dilution refrigerator to supplement the device's chilly 3-meter deep, 250-liter liquid helium bath. Because electromagnetic radiation entering through wires and cables can heat up the microscope, the ULTSPM lab is nested inside a separate, electromagnetically shielded room.

In order to ready new samples and probes without disturbing ongoing measurements, experimenters built a vacuum-sealed "railroad" system that they can disconnect from the chamber.

"The ability to create these kinds of experimental conditions opens up a whole new frontier in nanoscale physics," says Robert Celotta, founding director of the NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology. "This instrument has been five years in the making, and we can't help but be excited about all the discoveries waiting to be made."

* Y. Song, A. Otte, V. Shvarts, Z. Zhao, Y. Kuk, S. Blankenship, A. Band, F. Hess and J. Stroscio. A 10 mK scanning probe microscopy facility. Review of Scientific Instruments. In press.

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

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NIST Partners with ONC and AHRQ to Deliver Guidance on Electronic Health Record Usability

Two new publications from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are intended to help developers of software and computer systems for doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals improve the ease of use of electronic health records (EHRs). These publications are part of a federal effort, led by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) to help providers adopt and use EHRs that can bring about broad quality improvements and cost savings in the health care system.

 doctor with mouse at laptop
credit: © Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock
Efforts to improve the usability* of EHRs are widely recognized as key to achieving widespread adoption and meaningful use of these systems. A recent report prepared by the HHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) identified gaps in the processes and practices used by EHR vendors to ensure the usability of their products. One key finding from the report highlighted the lack of standard approaches and formats for testing and reporting usability of EHR products across the industry.

In coordination with its federal partners, NIST published the following guides to support EHR system developers in demonstrating evidence of the use of key elements of user-centered-design principles and to support standard approaches in evaluating and comparing the usability of EHR systems.

These documents and other materials related to NIST activities to advance EHR usability are available here, under publications.

*The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines usability as the "effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which the intended users can achieve their tasks in the intended context of product use."

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

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Financial Services Sector Signs Cybersecurity Research Agreement with NIST, DHS

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has joined in a new public-private partnership to spur cybersecurity innovation in the financial services sector. Through a memorandum of understanding signed on Dec. 6, 2010, NIST, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate and the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council agreed to work together to speed the application of research into practice for better cybersecurity for the critically important financial services sector.

The organizations plan to leverage their core cybersecurity expertise, research and development capabilities and other resources to explore the benefits of new cybersecurity technologies and develop new processes that benefit critical financial services functions.  Outputs of this collaborative research also are expected to be applicable to health care and Smart Grid cybersecurity needs. 

Nearly all modern financial services—banking and credit card transactions, insurance, trading and funds management, and many other business and consumer financial activities—are delivered online to all parts of the economy and society. Online services are also integral to international commerce. Both the public and private sectors have vital interests in securing financial services against threats.

The three members of the partnership have complementing capabilities: 

  • NIST's Information Technology Laboratory advances the state of the art in information technology and cybersecurity through innovations in mathematics, statistics and computer science and conducts research to develop the measurement and standards infrastructure for emerging information technologies and applications. Working with industry, other government agencies and academia, the institute accelerates the development of and deployment of IT systems that are reliable, usable, interoperable and secure.

  • The Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council—whose members include banks, credit unions, insurance companies, payment services, trading firms and others—supports research and development initiatives to protect the physical and electronic infrastructure of the banking and finance sector and to protect its customers by enhancing the sector's resilience and integrity.

  • The S&T Directorate is the Department of Homeland Security's research and development arm. Among its priorities, S&T conducts—in cooperation with other Federal agencies, state, local, and tribal governments, universities, and private industry—cybersecurity research and development to secure the Nation's current and future cyber and critical infrastructures. 

The groups will develop and implement use cases and the supporting test plans to facilitate high assurance network infrastructures, advanced identity management technologies and improved usability of security technologies. 

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

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First Set of Baldrige Criteria for 2011-2012 Now Online

The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program has announced that the 2011-2012 Criteria for Performance Excellence for businesses and nonprofit organizations are now available for download. The Criteria serve both as the standard for selecting the annual recipients of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and the road map for organizations worldwide seeking improved strategy and operations through pursuing performance excellence. The other two editions of the 2011-2012 Criteria—for health care and education—will be available on the Baldrige website later this month.

The Baldrige Criteria work as an integrated framework for managing an organization. They are simply a set of questions focusing on seven critical aspects of management that contribute to performance excellence: leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; workforce focus; operations focus; and results.

This year’s revisions to the Business/Nonprofit Criteria emphasized two themes: dealing with the increasing complexity of enterprise leadership and management; and improving customer engagement. The Criteria now include the concept of “intelligent risk taking” and an improved “line of sight” set of linkages that should take an organization from the strategic environment to the execution of its operations in a logical sequence. The category on customer focus has been reorganized to improve the flow of logic and now addresses the use of social media as an important contributor to capturing the “voice of the customer.”

Named after Malcolm Baldrige, the 26th Secretary of Commerce, the Baldrige Award was established by Congress in 1987 to enhance the competitiveness and performance of U.S. businesses. The award is not given for specific products or services. Since 1988, 86 organizations have received Baldrige Awards.

The Baldrige program is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conjunction with the private sector.

Paper copies of the Criteria will be mailed on request. E-mail baldrige@nist.gov or call (301) 975-2036.

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

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Baldrige Needs the Best of the Best as Examiners

Provide a valuable service to your country. If you're an expert from a business, education, healthcare or nonprofit organization, and possess knowledge and experience in leadership, strategic planning, customer service, human resources, process management and achieving results, you are on the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program's "Most Wanted List."

The Baldrige Program is seeking exceptional individuals to serve on the 2011 Board of Examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Examiners evaluate applications for the Award and prepare feedback reports to applicants that cite strengths and opportunities for improvement. They also act as "ambassadors" for the Baldrige Program and performance excellence.

The application form for the 2011 Board of Examiners is now available online at www.nist.gov/baldrige/examiners/index.cfm. Applications must be submitted electronically by 5 p.m. EST on Jan. 13, 2011.

The board consists of more than 500 volunteers, including 12 judges and about 60 senior examiners representing many industries and sectors. Service on the board provides opportunities to enhance one's knowledge about improving processes and achieving world-class results, develop a network of like-minded colleagues, and help improve U.S. competitiveness.

Perhaps the most valuable benefit to being an examiner: comprehensive training from one of the top 10 government leadership development programs as named by Leadership Excellence magazine for three years in a row. This professional development also can qualify for Continuing Education Units (CEUs).

For assistance in preparing an examiner application, contact examappl@nist.gov or call the Examiner Hotline toll-free at (877) 237-9064 (Option 2).

Named after Malcolm Baldrige, the 26th Secretary of Commerce, the Baldrige Award was established by Congress in 1987 and is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in cooperation with the private sector. The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program promotes excellence in organizational performance, recognizes the achievements and results of U.S. organizations, and publicizes successful performance management strategies. The Baldrige Award is not given for specific products or services. Since 1988, 86 organizations have received Baldrige Awards.

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

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NIST Team Awarded Millions of Supercomputing Hours, Aims for 'Concrete Results'

simulation still image

This simulation depicts flow in a rheometer, as its rotating vane's blade begins to stir a suspension of particles. Colors represent the quadrant where the particles are initially positioned. Such simulations can be used to link measurements of torque and angular velocity to fluid properties like viscosity, and they also can provide insight into physical mechanisims that control particle dispersion and mixing.

View related video (WMV)

Credit: NIST
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When you spot laborers pouring concrete for a new building or bridge, it may not occur to you that they are working with a substance so complex that it requires the world’s most powerful computers to understand its behavior. But the Department of Energy (DOE) has just awarded* a team of computer scientists, physicists and mathematicians at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) millions of hours of supercomputing time to analyze concrete flow, in the hope that this common material can be improved.

The DOE’s INCITE award provides the NIST team with up to 75 million “processor hours” over three years on the IBM Blue Gene/P computer at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago; the first year provides 25 million hours. One hour is equivalent to one computer processor crunching numbers for 60 minutes, and the Argonne machine contains many thousands of processors that can run in parallel.

The team’s aim is to simulate and analyze the movement and interaction among the many particles and fluids that comprise unset concrete—by no means an easy task. The particles vary widely in size—from large stones to grains of sand—and the fluid in which they are suspended flows in ways that change depending on the pressure during stirring and mixing.

All in all, it’s a heap of mathematical trouble to model such a material, so why bother? Concrete’s use stretches back millennia, but modern additives make it possible to create concrete that is not only strong but translucent, flexible, or possessing a number of other qualities that make it as valuable to today’s architects as to ancient Rome’s. There’s a $100 billion industry in concrete in the United States alone, making it critical to stir up the best concrete possible to improve our infrastructure.

“You can mix in materials to make concrete better, but right now choosing these additives is based largely on guesswork. We’d like to be able to improve it intelligently,” says NIST’s William George. “This is by far the largest supercomputing project that NIST has ever taken on in terms of time and processing power, and we hope it will provide the world with more long-lasting, sustainable concrete.”

*Formal announcement of the team’s award is available on page 15.

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

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ENERGY STAR, a program of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) to promote energy efficiency, has recognized the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) as an accrediting body. This recognition enables NVLAP to accredit independent labs as having the technical capability necessary to test products to determine whether they meet ENERGY STAR requirements.

NVLAP accreditation will be a necessary first step for a laboratory’s test data to be accepted under the enhanced ENERGY STAR program.

NVLAP already accredits laboratories that test for energy efficiency in lighting products, electromagnetic compatibility in telecommunications and other equipment, and the performance of thermal insulation products. NVLAP officials anticipate that many of these testing laboratories will be eligible for recognition under new EPA requirements.

The EPA introduced ENERGY STAR in 1992 as a voluntary labeling program to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beginning with computers and monitors, the ENERGY STAR label now includes more than 60 product categories, such as major appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics, and more. It is used by millions of Americans to identify efficient products and reduce energy costs—saving them an estimated $17 billion in 2009 alone. EPA has also extended the label to cover new homes and commercial and industrial buildings.

To ensure that ENERGY STAR remains a trusted symbol for environmental protection and superior energy efficiency, all businesses and other organizations seeking an ENERGY STAR label will be required to follow a new set of third-party certification procedures, starting Jan. 1, 2011. The enhanced program will require products testing and certification at an accredited laboratory, which necessitates evaluating laboratories for conformance with ENERGY STAR criteria.

Details of the program can be found on the ENERGY STAR website.

Visit NVLAP for more information about the accreditation program.

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

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New Round of NIST-ARRA Fellowships Announced

The National Institute of Standards and Technology's American Recovery and Reinvestment (NIST-ARRA) Act Measurement Science and Engineering Fellowship Program has announced its third round of applications for undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and senior research positions.

Administered by the University of Maryland, NIST-ARRA fellowships provide financial assistance to increase the number of research and collaboration opportunities at NIST in fields of measurement science and engineering, furthering the agency's mission to advance innovation. Fellows will work on projects with NIST scientists and engineers engaged in research programs housed at NIST's Gaithersburg, Md., campus and the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, S.C. Fellowship opportunities range from part-time and summer fellowships for undergraduates to full-time opportunities for graduate students and positions for postdoctoral fellows or practicing scientists and engineers. The deadline for this round of applications is January 15, 2011. Learn more about the program and get instructions on how to apply.

Media Contact: Mark Bello, mark.bello@nist.gov, 301-975-3776

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Fiery Video Shows Moisture is Main Ingredient for a Safe Christmas Tree

Once ignited, a dry Fraser fir, one of the most popular Christmas tree choices, bursts into flames in less than 7 seconds, and it will be consumed by fire in slightly more than a minute. But if a well-watered Fraser fir briefly ignites, the flame soon dies. This experiment, videotaped by researchers at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), provides a stunning, visual lesson on why keeping one’s Christmas tree moist can be a matter of life-and-death importance.

Every holiday season, hundreds of homes catch fire when something as small as poor insulation on a Christmas tree light sparks or causes a small flame, which is what was simulated in the NIST video. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), each year holiday trees fires cause 210 home fires, injure and kill dozens and cause more than $13.3 million in property damage. The NFPA also reports that one in nine Christmas tree fires lead to a death.

NIST’s 90-second-long video, called “Dry Tree vs. High Moisture Tree Fire,” is a persuasive educational tool. The video shows the two Christmas tree tests side by side. The needles on the tree on the left are fully moist; the moisture content of the other tree’s needles is less than 10 percent. As the video begins, the trees are ignited with a small flaming source. By the end of the video, the well-watered tree stands tall and green, while the dry tree is a charred remnant.

The video has been shown on local and national television during the holiday season since its debut two years ago. “Every year it is picked up by many local television stations to remind people of the risks of fire during the holidays,” says Fire Fighting Technology Group Leader Dan Madrzykowski. In addition to seeing it on the NIST web site, hundreds of thousands of people have viewed the video on You Tube and the U.S. Fire Administration website as well as others.

Fire marshalls and fire service educators also use the DVD for fire safety training, Madrzykowski explained, adding that this and other tree fire videos also are used in online training classes. More than 21,000 of the DVDs have been distributed internationally.

The NIST “Fire Safety for the Holidays” website shows videos of earlier NIST experiments that tell similar stories. “Dry Scotch Pine Tree Fire” shows the damage a dry tree exposed to an open flame can cause in a lighted room full of furniture. All is ablaze until the room is in total darkness within 46 seconds.

Another educational video shows the striking difference a residential sprinkler system can make. The burning tree sets off the single room sprinkler in about 10 seconds and puts the tree fire out within three and one-half minutes. Unlike the other videos of fires in living rooms, none of the furniture catches fire, which would cause the fire to flashover and move throughout the house.

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

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NIST Honors 139 for Achievements in 2010

For accomplishments ranging from determining the causes of failures in ballistic-resistant body armor to innovations in technology transfer strategies to organization-wide improvements in safety, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently honored 139 scientific, technical, and administrative employees at its 38th annual awards ceremony.

The wide range of recognized achievements attests to the considerable diversity and usefulness of NIST's research and service programs, as well as the array of underpinning in-house activities that support these programs. To get a representative sampling of these efforts, read the announcement listing this year's winners of the NIST awards and the recipients of Department of Commerce Gold and Silver medals.

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

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