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Tech Beat - November 22, 2011

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: November 22, 2011
Date Modified: November 22, 2011 
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Tags? We're It. NIST Opens New 'Biolabeling' Research Facility

With the recent opening of its new Biomolecular Labeling Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has become one of a small handful of facilities in the world that specializes in tagging large molecules with different isotopes to make them easier to analyze. The new NIST lab is available to outside researchers, particularly those in biomedical fields who also want to take advantage of the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)'s analysis tools.

Zvi Kelman
Zvi Kelman, director of NIST’s new Biomolecular Labeling Laboratory, works near the lab’s five user stations. The lab will allow users to tag biological molecules with heavy isotopes for easier analysis.
Credit: Boutin/NIST
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The “BL-squared” lab, a collaboration between NIST and the University of Maryland, should interest drug manufacturers, who need details about the structure and behavior of protein molecules that could become new medicines. Scientists prefer to make a novel molecule stand out from its background so they can spot it more easily with certain lab techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), small angle neutron scattering (SANS) and mass spectrometry.

Isotope tagging is a particularly effective way to enhance a molecule’s visibility. Some of its common atoms—hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen, for example—are exchanged for heavier versions of themselves. These rare stable isotopes—deuterium, carbon-13 and nitrogen-15—are not radioactive, but their different atomic mass makes the “labeled” molecule more visible during SANS, NMR or other types of measurements.

While biolabeling can be done on an ad hoc basis in any lab, NIST’s Zvi Kelman says that the new lab will bring greater efficiency to the process.

“Now NIST will have the ability to produce and label biomolecules with different patterns and levels of isotopes,” says Kelman, who recently moved from the University of Maryland to NIST’s Biochemical Science Division. “Our facility is an open collaboration, so once we learn something about marking one biomolecule, we can then turn around and apply that knowledge to other users' projects.”

Up to five clients, or “users,” will have room to work simultaneously in the lab, while its close proximity to the NCNR means that users can take advantage of the NCNR’s many neutron-based scanning methods as well. The lab will be able to accommodate about 50 to 60 users per year, according to Kelman, and it will be unusual in that there will be no requirement that users analyze their newly labeled molecules at NIST.

Kelman’s team is now accepting applications to use the facility, which is located at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research near NIST’s Gaithersburg, Md., campus, and will review them on a rolling basis. To apply, visit https://www-s.nist.gov/NCNR-IMS/.

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

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Four Organizations Win 2011 Baldrige National Quality Award

U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson today named four organizations—three health care operations and one nonprofit business—as recipients of the 2011 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest Presidential honor for performance excellence through innovation, improvement and visionary leadership. This marks the first year that three health care organizations have been selected at one time.

The winning recipients—listed with their category—are:

  • Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Mo. (nonprofit)
  • Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, Mich. (health care)
  • Schneck Medical Center, Seymour, Ind. (health care)
  • Southcentral Foundation, Anchorage, Alaska (health care)


The 2011 Baldrige Award recipients were selected from a field of 69 applicants. All of the applicants were 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 award is managed as part of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP) by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in cooperation with the private sector Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

A forthcoming economic study prepared for BPEP documents the practical benefits of the Baldrige program. Of the 273 Baldrige Award applicants since 2006, the study finds, the benefits to these organizations on three levels—cost savings, customer satisfaction and financial gain—outweighed the overall cost of the BPEP by a ratio of 1,252-to-1.

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. Originally, three types of organizations were eligible: manufacturers, service companies and small businesses. Congress expanded the program in 1999 to include education and health care organizations, and again in 2007 to include nonprofit organizations such as charities, trade and professional associations, and government agencies. The award promotes excellence in organizational performance, recognizes the achievements and results of U.S. organizations, and publicizes successful performance strategies.

For more details, see the Nov. 22, 2011 news announcement, “Four U.S. Organizations Honored with the 2011 Baldrige National Quality Award” at www.nist.gov/baldrige/baldrige_recipients2011.cfm. For more information on the BPEP, go to www.nist.gov/baldrige.

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

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New Magnetic-Field-Sensitive Alloy Could Find Use in Novel Micromechanical Devices

Led by a group at the University of Maryland (UMd), a multi-institution team of researchers has combined modern materials research and an age-old metallurgy technique to produce an alloy that could be the basis for a new class of sensors and micromechanical devices controlled by magnetism.* The alloy, a combination of cobalt and iron, is notable, among other things, for not using rare-earth elements to achieve its properties. Materials scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) contributed precision measurements of the alloy's structure and mechanical properties to the project.

giant magnetostriction alloy
TEM (transmission electron microscope) image taken at NIST of an annealed cobalt iron alloy. The high magnetostriction seen in this alloy is due to the two-phase iron-rich (shaded blue) and cobalt-rich (shaded red) structure and the nanoscale segregation.
Credit: Bendersky/NIST
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The alloy exhibits a phenomenon called "giant magnetostriction," an amplified change in dimensions when placed in a sufficiently strong magnetic field. The effect is analogous to the more familiar piezoelectric effect that causes certain materials, like quartz, to compress under an electric field. They can be used in a variety of ways, including as sensitive magnetic field detectors and tiny actuators for micromechanical devices. The latter is particularly interesting to engineers because, unlike piezoelectrics, magnetostrictive elements require no wires and can be controlled by an external magnetic field source.

To find the best mixture of metals and processing, the team used a combinatorial screening technique, fabricating hundreds of tiny test cantilevers—tiny, 10-millimeter-long, silicon beams looking like diving boards— and coating them with a thin film of alloy, gradually varying the ratio of cobalt to iron across the array of cantilevers. They also used two different heat treatments, including, critically, one in which the alloy was heated to an annealing temperature and then suddenly quenched in water.

Quenching is a classic metallurgy technique to freeze a material's microstructure in a state that it normally only has when heated. In this case, measurements at NIST and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) showed that the best-performing alloy had a delicate hetereogenous, nanoscale structure in which cobalt-rich crystals were embedded throughout a different, iron-rich crystal structure. Magnetostriction was determined by measuring the amount by which the alloy bent the tiny silicon cantilever in a magnetic field, combined with delicate measurements at NIST to determine the stiffness of the cantilever.

The best annealed alloy showed a sizeable magnetostriction effect in magnetic fields as low as about 0.01 Tesla. (The earth's magnetic field generally ranges around roughly 0.000 045 T, and a typical ferrite refrigerator magnet might be about 0.7 T.)

The results, says team leader Ichiro Takeuchi of UMd, are lower than, but comparable to, the values for the best known magnetostrictive material, a rare-earth alloy called Tb-Dy-Fe**—but with the advantage that the new alloy doesn't use the sometimes difficult to acquire rare earths. "Freezing in the heterogeneity by quenching is an old method in metallurgy, but our approach may be unique in thin films," he observes. "That's the beauty—a nice, simple technique but you can get these large effects."

The quenched alloy might offer both size and processing advantages over more common piezoelectric microdevices, says NIST materials scientist Will Osborn. "Magnetorestriction devices are less developed than piezoelectrics, but they're becoming more interesting because the scale at which you can operate is smaller," he says. "Piezoelectrics are usually oxides, brittle and often lead-based, all of which is hard on manufacturing processes. These alloys are metal and much more compatible with the current generation of integrated device manufacturing. They're a good next-generation material for microelectromechanical machines."

The effort also involved researchers from the Russian Institute of Metal Physics, Urals Branch of the Academy of Science; Oregon State University and Rowan University. Funding sources included the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation. SSRL is part of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, operated under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy.

* D. Hunter, W. Osborn, K. Wang, N. Kazantseva, J. Hattrick-Simpers, R. Suchoski, R. Takahashi, M.L. Young, A. Mehta, L.A. Bendersky, S.E. Lofland, M. Wuttig and I. Takeuchi. Giant magnetostriction in annealed Co1-xFex thin-films. Nature Communications. Nov. 1, 2011. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1529
** Terbium-dysprosium-iron.

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

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Tiny Levers, Big Moves in Piezoelectric Sensors

A team of university researchers, aided by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), have succeeded in integrating a new, highly efficient piezoelectric material into a silicon microelectromechanical system (MEMS).* This development could lead to significant advances in sensing, imaging and energy harvesting.

A piezoelectric material, such as quartz, expands slightly when fed electricity and, conversely, generates an electric charge when squeezed. Quartz watches take advantage of this property to keep time: electricity from the watch's battery causes a piece of quartz to expand and contract inside a small chamber at a specific frequency that circuitry in the watch translates into time.

Piezoelectric materials are also in sensors in sonar and ultrasound systems, which use the same principle in reverse to translate sound waves into images of, among other things, fetuses in utero and fish under the water.

Although conventional piezoelectric materials work fairly well for many applications, researchers have long sought to find or invent new ones that expand more and more forcefully and produce stronger electrical signals. More reactive materials would make for better sensors and could enable new technologies such as "energy harvesting," which would transform the energy of walking and other mechanical motions into electrical power.

Enter a material named PMN-PT.**

A large team led by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a way to incorporate PMN-PT into tiny, diving-board like cantilevers on a silicon base, a typical material for MEMS construction, and demonstrated that PMN-PT could deliver two to four times more movement with stronger force—while using only 3 volts—than most rival materials studied to date. It also generates a similarly strong electric charge when compressed, which is good news for those in the sensing and energy harvesting businesses.

To confirm that the experimental observations were due to the piezoelectric's performance, NIST researcher Vladimir Aksyuk developed engineering models of the cantilevers to estimate how much they would bend and at what voltage. Aksyuk also made other performance measures in comparison to silicon systems that achieve similar effects using electrostatic attraction.

"Silicon is good for these systems, but it is passive and can only move if heated or using electrostatics, which requires high voltage or large dissipated power," says Aksyuk. "Our work shows definitively that the addition of PMN-PT to MEMS designed for sensing or as energy harvesters will provide a tremendous boost to their sensitivity and efficiency. A much bigger 'bend for your buck,' I guess you could say."

Other participants included researchers from Penn State University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; Cornell University; and Argonne National Laboratory.

* S.H. Baek, J.Park, D.M. Kim, V.A. Aksyuk, R.R. Das, S.D. Bu, D.A. Felker, J. Lettieri, V. Vaithyanathan, S.S.N. Bharadwaja, N. Bassiri-Gharb, Y.B. Chen, H.P. Sun, C.M. Folkman, H.W. Jang, D.J. Kreft, S.K. Streiffer, R. Ramesh, X.Q. Pan, S. Trolier-McKinstry, D.G. Schlom, M.S. Rzchowski, R.H. Blick and C.B. Eom. Giant piezoelectricity on Si for hyperactive MEMS. Science. Published Nov. 18, 2011. Vol. 334 no. 6058 pp. 958-961. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207186.
** A crystalline alloy of lead, magnesium niobate and lead titanate.

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

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NIST Improves Tool for Hardening Software Against Cyber Attack

Computer scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have dramatically enlarged a database designed to improve applications that help programmers find weaknesses in software. This database, the SAMATE Reference Dataset (SRD), version 4.0, is a freely available online tool aimed at helping programmers fortify their creations against hackers.

A complex piece of software like an operating system or a Web browser usually requires the combined effort of multiple programmers to write up to millions of lines of computer code. Before their software hits the market, it first must be put through its paces to make sure it not only works as desired under a multitude of different circumstances, but also that it is not vulnerable to cyber attack. The act of checking out software in this fashion has become so complicated in and of itself that developers created another type of labor-saving program called a "static analyzer" to help with the checking. Static analyzers doggedly run through the code looking for obvious problems, but they can only find the weaknesses they have been programmed to find—which is where the SRD comes in.

"The SRD is for companies that build static analyzers, whose use is expanding within the software industry," says SRD project leader Michael Koo. "It will help their products catch the most common errors in the software they are supposed to check. It brings rigor into software assurance, so that the public can be more confident that there are fewer dangerous weaknesses in the software they use."

The weaknesses might be compared to grammatical errors in a page of writing—errors that inadvertently instruct a computer to do things that leave itself open to cyber attack. SAMATE, which stands for Software Assurance Metrics And Tool Evaluation, is a NIST project with the goal of minimizing these errors in commercial software. SRD version 4.0 contains 175 broad categories of weakness types that encompass more than 60,000 specific cases of code errors—an addition of 100 more categories and 30 times the number of cases in SRD version 3.0. Each specific case is about a page of computer code showing a problematic way of composing functions, loops, or logic operations written in languages such as Java, C and C++. The dataset is fully searchable by language, type of weakness and code construct, and search results are available in a downloadable Zip file.

The NIST team says the next step for improving the dataset is to include errors in more languages, as well as in far longer stretches of computer code. The 4.0 release includes mostly short examples, but Koo says there are plans to explore vulnerabilities in large open-source software packages of up to a million lines of code and expand the SRD to include these in the near future. "We welcome contributions from other computer security researchers," Koo says.

The SAMATE Reference Dataset (SRD), version 4.0 is available online at http://samate.nist.gov/SRD.

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

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New HIPAA Tool Helps Organizations Meet Security Requirements

A new tool, developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and offered for free, can help public and private organizations, large and small, to understand and implement the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule.

Congress enacted HIPAA to, among other things, promote efficiency in the health care industry through the use of standardized electronic transactions, while protecting the privacy and security of health information.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) published the HIPAA Security Rule, a national set of standards for protecting electronic protected health information (EPHI) that is created, transmitted, or maintained by covered entities and their business associates. HHS recognizes the value of NIST's information security standards and guidelines, and has recommended these as valuable resources for organizations to consider as they implement the HIPAA Security Rule.

The law requires "covered entities" and business associates to follow the HIPAA Security Rule. Covered entities include government agencies involved in health records, health care providers, health plans such as health insurance issuers and Medicaid and Medicare programs, health care clearinghouses and Medicare prescription drug card sponsors. "Our HIPAA Security Rule Toolkit is designed to help organizations of all sizes and with varying levels of security expertise to better protect electronic health information," says NIST information security specialist Kevin Stine. "It leverages many existing security resources and tailors them for use within the context of HIPAA security." He emphasizes that the application is meant as a self-assessment tool, and does not indicate HIPAA Security Rule compliance.

The toolkit is intended to be a resource that organizations can use to support their risk assessment processes by identifying areas where security safeguards may be needed to protect EPHI, or where existing security safeguards may need to be improved. The self-assessment tool presents a series of questions in groups related to each of the HIPAA Security Rule standards and implementation specifications. For simplicity, the toolkit follows the established HIPAA structure of administrative, physical and technical safeguards, organizational requirements, and policies, procedures and documentation requirements.

The target audience includes HIPAA-covered entities and business associates, and organizations that provide Security Rule implementation, assessment and compliance services. Target user organizations can range in size from a large nationwide health plan with vast information technology (IT) resources to a small two-doctor health care provider with limited access to IT expertise.

The free toolkit comes with a comprehensive User Guide and a self-contained, stand-alone software application that can run on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. It is available at http://scap.nist.gov/hipaa/. Funding for the toolkit was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

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

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NIST and Partners Seek Input on Safer Ambulance Designs

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is seeking input from paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and other interested parties on the development of new design guidelines for ambulances to reduce the crash risk to emergency workers.

Emergency medical service (EMS) workers riding in the back of ambulances are at high risk of suffering injuries during a crash or a maneuver to avoid a crash if they're not using restraints. However, restraints make it difficult to access and treat patients while in route to a hospital. To meet the challenge of finding a balance between these two demands, NIST, the Department of Homeland Security's Human Factors and Behavioral Sciences Division (DHS HFD) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are developing design guidelines for ambulance patient compartments that maximize safety without compromising effectiveness.

These guidelines will be used to update current, and enhance emerging, ambulance design criteria, such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1917, the "Standard for Automotive Ambulances."

To gather input for the guidelines from a broad cross-section of the key stakeholders, EMTs and paramedics, the three agencies are conducting an anonymous web survey from Nov. 28, 2011, to Dec. 28, 2011. Insight and opinions from this survey will supplement data previously gathered from focus groups, interviews with individual EMS workers, visits to equipment manufacturers and EMS stations, and "ride-along" experiences aboard on-duty ambulances.

The web survey can be found at either the NIST Office of Law Enforcement Standards site, www.nist.gov/oles, or the DHS Responder Knowledge Database site, www.rkb.us.

For more information, or to get more involved in the effort to improve safety in ambulance patient compartments, contact Darren Wilson, DHS, at (202) 254-6657 or darren.wilson@dhs.gov; Larry Avery, BMT Designers & Planners, at (919) 713-0383 or lavery@dandp.com; or Jennifer Marshall, NIST, at (301) 975-3396 or jennifer.marshall@nist.gov.

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

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NIST Posts Comments on Public Safety Communications Network

Commercial standards, created in an open forum and publically available, should be a key feature of a broadband communications network for the nation's emergency services, according to public comments garnered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The value of an open commercial standards process for interoperability, innovation and affordability was echoed in many of the comments made in response to a NIST request* last September for suggestions on the planned emergency services network.

Comments came from 29 sources in industry, academia, public safety associations, state and local entities, and private citizens. The portfolio of the comments received by NIST may be viewed at www.nist.gov/oles/public_safety.cfm.

This request for information coincides with the ongoing development of a demonstration test bed of the network by the joint NIST-National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program. The network would use a portion of the 700 megahertz (MHz) radio frequency spectrum, and the test bed will provide a common site for manufacturers, carriers and public safety agencies to evaluate advanced broadband communications equipment and software tailored specifically to the needs of emergency first responders.

Other recurring subjects in the submitted comments include:

  • the need for an open and collaborative process for prioritizing research and development initiatives;
  • the value of an open application platform (a set of codes and specifications that software programs can use to "interface" or communicate with each other) such as the Application Programming Interface (API);
  • the benefits of network sharing capabilities; and
  • the possibility of the network including government-to-citizen communications.

In addition to these topics, several research and development priorities were seen throughout the majority of the submissions. These focused primarily on functions and features that are not currently utilized by commercial markets, specifically Direct Mode/Talk Around, Priority/Pre-emption, Quality of Service and security/access control.

The PSCR program is a partnership of the NIST Law Enforcement Standards Office and NTIA's Institute for Telecommunication Sciences. PSCR provides objective technical support—research, development, testing and evaluation—in order to foster nationwide public safety communications interoperability. More information is available on the PSCR Web site at www.pscr.gov.

* "NIST Seeks Comments to Help Build Public Safety Communications Network." NIST Tech Beat, Sept. 13, 2011, www.nist.gov//public_affairs/tech-beat/tb20110913.cfm#network.

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

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Romine Named Director of NIST's Information Technology Laboratory

charles romine
Charles H. Romine, new director of the NIST Information Technology Laboratory.
Credit: NIST
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Charles (Chuck) H. Romine became director of the Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on Nov. 21, 2011. With more than 500 staff and guest researchers, ITL develops and disseminates standards, measurements, and testing for interoperability, security, usability and reliability of information systems. Its work includes cybersecurity standards and guidelines for federal agencies and U.S. industry, and support for measurement science at NIST through fundamental and applied research in computer science, mathematics and statistics.

Romine joined NIST in 2009, and most recently was the acting associate director for NIST laboratory programs, responsible for oversight and direction of NIST’s six laboratory programs and the principal deputy to NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. Prior to that appointment, Romine served as the senior policy advisor to the NIST director and as the associate director for program implementation within ITL.

Before joining NIST, Romine spent five years in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as the senior policy analyst responsible for providing expert technical and policy advice to the president’s science advisor for all areas related to information technology. Romine began his career in 1986 with the Department of Energy after receiving a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and a B.A. in mathematics, both from the University of Virginia. He spent 15 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, conducting research on advanced algorithms for supercomputers and four years at the Department of Energy Office of Science as program manager for the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research.

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

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Original NIST Campus in D.C. Designated 'Physics Historic Site'

Ernest Ambler's notebook
Page 90 of Ernest Ambler's laboratory notebook recording the historic parity conservation experiment on December 27, 1956.
Credit: NIST
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The American Physical Society (APS) has designated the original campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as a Physics Historic Site.

The APS designation recognizes a 1956 discovery that "revolutionized our understanding of nature's fundamental laws." The discovery was made in the low-temperature laboratory at NIST, then known as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). The bureau moved to the current Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters site in the 1960s.

The 1956 experiment demonstrated that, in at least one fundamental physical process, the world is distinguishable from its mirror image. The experiment was performed by five scientists, four of whom worked at NBS, including a future NBS director, Ernest Ambler. The demonstration verified work by theorists from Columbia University and the Institute for Advanced Study, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics.

APS officials presented a commemorative plaque to the University of the District of Columbia, now located on the old NBS campus, at a ceremony on November 9, 2011.

For more on the APS designation, see www.aps.org/programs/outreach/history/historicsites/nbs-2011.cfm. The experiment is described at www.nist.gov/pml/general/parity/index.cfm.

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

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