In This Issue...
NIST/CU 'Star Comb' Joins Quest for Earthlike Planets
If there is life on other planets, a laser frequency comb developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) may help find it.
Such a comb—a tool for precisely measuring frequencies, or colors, of light—has for the first time been used to calibrate measurements of starlight from stars other than the Sun. The good results suggest combs will eventually fulfill their potential to boost the search for Earth-like planets to a new level.
As described in Optics Express,* the comb was transported to the Texas mountains to calibrate a light analyzing instrument called a spectrograph at the Hobby-Eberly telescope. A University of Colorado Boulder (CU) astronomer and Pennsylvania State University students and astronomers collaborated on the project.
“The comb worked great,” says NIST physicist Scott Diddams. “In a few days, it enabled measurement precision comparable to the very best achieved in the same wavelength range with much more established techniques—and we hope the comb will do much better as the new technique is perfected.”
The NIST comb calibrated measurements of infrared starlight. This type of light is predominantly emitted by M dwarf stars, which are plentiful in Earth’s part of the galaxy and might have orbiting planets suitable to life.
To search for planets orbiting distant stars, astronomers look for periodic variations in the apparent colors of starlight over time. A star’s nuclear furnace emits white light, which is modified by elements in the star’s and the Earth’s atmosphere that absorb certain narrow bands of color. Periodic changes in this characteristic “fingerprint” can be caused by the star wobbling from the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet. More than 600 planets have been discovered using star wobble analysis, but a planet analogous to the Earth, with low mass and orbiting at just the right distance from a star—in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”—is hard to detect with conventional technology.
The wobbling effect is very subtle. Astronomers are limited by the precision of techniques used to measure the starlight, and infrared frequencies in particular can be challenging to measure precisely with conventional tools. But the NIST comb, which spans an infrared wavelength range of 1450—1700 nanometers, provides strong signals at narrowly defined target frequencies and is traceable to international measurement standards. Used with a spectrograph, the frequency comb can act like a very precise ruler to calibrate and track the exact colors in the star’s fingerprint and detect any periodic variations.
The NIST comb measured radial velocity—star wobble—with a precision of about 10 meters per second, comparable to the best ever achieved in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The first field results are limited by the short observation time and technical issues associated with the newly developed experimental approach. The team hopes to soon improve precision to 1 meter per second, roughly the limit to date for measuring visible light from the Sun—which would put the technique at the cutting edge of infrared astronomy. The NIST comb has the inherent capability to measure star wobble of just a few centimeters per second, 100 times better, although limitations in the spectrograph and in the stability of the star itself may constrain the ultimate precision.
CU graduate student Gabe Ycas, along with Diddams and CU astronomer Steve Osterman, created the frequency comb, which has widely spaced “teeth,” or calibration points, tailored to the reading capability of spectrographs. This work was supported by NIST and the National Science Foundation. Penn State is a partner in the telescope and spectrograph.
* G.G. Ycas , F. Quinlan, S.A. Diddams, S. Osterman, S. Mahadevan, S. Redman, R. Terrien, L. Ramsey, C.F. Bender, B. Botzer and S. Sigurdsson. Demonstration of on-sky calibration of astronomical spectra using a 25 GHz near-IR laser frequency comb. Optics Express, Vol. 20, No. 6. Published March 6 , 2012.
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NIST Measurements May Help Optimize Organic Solar Cells
Organic solar cells may be a step closer to market because of measurements taken at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), where a team of scientists has developed a better fundamental understanding of how to optimize the cells’ performance.*
Prototype solar cells made of organic materials currently lag far behind conventional silicon-based photovoltaic cells in terms of electricity output. But if even reasonably efficient organic cells can be developed, they would have distinct advantages of their own: They would cost far less to produce than conventional cells, could cover larger areas, and conceivably could be recycled far more easily.
The cells the team studied are made by stacking up hundreds of thin layers that alternate between two different organic materials—zinc pthalocyanine and C60, the soccer-ball shaped carbon molecules sometimes called buckminsterfullerenes, or “buckyballs.” Light that strikes this multilayered film excites all its layers from top to bottom, causing them to give up electrons that flow between the buckyball and pthalocyanine layers, creating an electric current.
Each layer is only a few nanometers thick, and varying their thickness has a dramatic effect on how much electrical current the overall cell puts out. According to NIST chemist Ted Heilweil, determining the ideal thickness of the layers is crucial to making the best-performing cells.
“In essence, if the layers are too thin, they don’t generate enough electrons for a substantial current to flow, but if they are too thick, many of the electrons get trapped in the individual layers,” says Heilweil. “We wanted to find the sweet spot.”
Finding that “sweet spot” involved exploring the relationship between layer thickness and two different aspects of the material. When light strikes the film, the layers generate an initial “spike” in current that then decays fairly quickly; the ideal cell would generate electrons as steadily as possible. Changing the layer thickness affects the initial decay rate, but it also affects the overall capacity of the material to carry electrons, so the team wanted to find the optimum combination of these two factors.
Paul Lane of NRL grew a number of films that had layers of different thickness, and the team made measurements at both labs that took the two factors into account, finding that layers of roughly two nanometers thick give the best performance. Heilweil says the results encourage him to think prototype cells based on this geometry can be optimized, though one engineering hurdle remains: finding the best way to get the electricity out.
“It’s still unclear how to best incorporate such thin nanolayers in devices,” he says. “We hope to challenge engineers who can help us with that part.”
* P.A. Lane, P.D. Cunningham, J.S. Melinger, G.P. Kushto, O. Esenturk and E.J. Heilweil. Photoexcitation dynamics in films of C60 and Zn-Phthalocyanine with a layered nanostructure. Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.077402. Published 15 Feb 2012.
Media Contact: Chad Boutin, firstname.lastname@example.org, 301-975-4261
The Shape of Things to Come: NIST Probes the Promise of Nanomanufacturing Using DNA Origami
In recent years, scientists have begun to harness DNA’s powerful molecular machinery to build artificial structures at the nanoscale using the natural ability of pairs of DNA molecules to assemble into complex structures. Such “DNA origami,” first developed at the California Institute of Technology,* could provide a means of assembling complex nanostructures such as semiconductor devices, sensors and drug delivery systems, from the bottom up.
While most researchers in the field are working to demonstrate what’s possible, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are seeking to determine what’s practical.**
According to NIST researcher Alex Liddle, it’s a lot like building with LEGOs—some patterns enable the blocks to fit together snugly and stick together strongly and some don’t.
“If the technology is actually going to be useful, you have to figure out how well it works,” says Liddle. “We have determined what a number of the critical factors are for the specific case of assembling nanostructures using a DNA-origami template and have shown how proper design of the desired nanostructures is essential to achieving good yield, moving, we hope, the technology a step forward.”
In DNA origami, researchers lay down a long thread of DNA and attach “staples” comprised of complementary strands that bind to make the DNA fold up into various shapes, including rectangles, squares and triangles. The shapes serve as a template onto which nanoscale objects such as nanoparticles and quantum dots can be attached using strings of linker molecules.
The NIST researchers measured how quickly nanoscale structures can be assembled using this technique, how precise the assembly process is, how closely they can be spaced, and the strength of the bonds between the nanoparticles and the DNA origami template.
What they found is that a simple structure, four quantum dots at the corners of a 70-nanometer by 100-nanometer origami rectangle, takes up to 24 hours to self-assemble with an error rate of about 5 percent.
Other patterns that placed three and four dots in a line through the middle of the origami template were increasingly error prone. Sheathing the dots in biomaterials, a necessity for attaching them to the template, increases their effective diameter. A wider effective diameter (about 20 nanometers) limits how closely the dots can be positioned and also increases their tendency to interfere with one another during self-assembly, leading to higher error rates and lower bonding strength. This trend was especially pronounced for the four-dot patterns.
“Overall, we think that this process is good for building structures for biological applications like sensors and drug delivery, but it might be a bit of a stretch when applied to semiconductor device manufacturing—the distances can’t be made small enough and the error rate is just too high,” says Liddle.
** S.H. Ko, G.M. Gallatin and J.A. Liddle. Nanomanufacturing with DNA origami: factors affecting the kinetics and yield of quantum dot binding. Advanced Functional Materials, 22, 1015-1023 (2012).
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Two for One: Simultaneous Size and Electrochemical Measurement of Nanomaterials
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have done a mash-up of two very different experimental techniques—neutron scattering and electrochemical measurements—to enable them to observe structural changes in nanoparticles as they undergo an important type of chemical reaction. Their recently published technique* allows them to directly match up particle size, shape and agglomeration with the “redox” chemical properties of the particles. The measurements are important both for the design of nanoparticles for particular applications and for toxicology studies.
Nanoparticles present unique engineering challenges—and opportunities—because their extremely small size can give them physical properties quite unlike those they have in bulk quantities. The challenge for materials scientists is to determine just what those changes are and how they relate to particle size and structure.
The NIST team was interested in the oxidation-reduction—redox— properties of zinc oxide nanoparticles, which are used or being considered for a wide variety of applications ranging from sunscreens and antibacterial coatings to semiconductor and photoelectronic devices.
Redox reactions are one of the major divisions of chemical reactions, those that involve a transfer of electrons from one atom or molecule to another. Redox properties determine the path a chemical reaction will take. “They are the drivers of many biological processes,” explains NIST materials researcher Vivek Prabhu. “There are many biochemical reactions that are well-defined oxidation-reduction reactions. There are tables of these. But there are no such tables that we know of on how nanoparticles can affect those reactions.”
The NIST team knew they could monitor the size, shape and dispersion of nanoparticles in solution using SANS—small-angle neutron scattering. The scattering patterns from a SANS instrument, says Prabhu, give you not only those details but structural information about the solution itself, the size distribution of the particles and whether they clump together, all in “real” time as the experiment progresses.
Redox properties, on the other hand, are measured in electrochemical cells that are essentially half of a battery. Voltage and the amount of current flowing through the primary electrode depend on the reaction redox potential and the concentration of the test material.
The problem, Prabhu explains, is that SANS measures things in bulk, in a volume of space, but, “An electrochemical experiment is a very local experiment—it happens at an interface. What we needed was to maximize the interface.” The answer, contributed by his partner, Vytas Reipa, is an exotic material called reticulated glassy carbon. “Like a very stiff household sponge or scouring pad made of pure carbon,” Prabhu explains. The porous carbon electrode turned out to be an ideal terminal—lots of surface area to serve as a reaction interface; nearly transparent to neutrons, so it doesn’t contribute much background noise; and best of all, it works well in water, enabling the study of nanoparticles in aqueous solutions, critical for biological reactions.
A big advantage of the “eSANS” technique, Prabhu says, is its generality. “You can apply our method to nearly any dispersed material that is of interest to redox chemistry—polymers, redox proteins, nucleic acids—at this nanoscale. Small polymer chains, for example. You can’t really see them with electron microscopy, you can with neutrons.”
* V.M. Prabhu and V. Reipa. In situ electrochemical small-angle neutron scattering (eSANS) for quantitative structure and redox properties of nanoparticles. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2012, 3, 646-650 dx.doi.org/10.1021/jz300124t.
Media Contact: Michael Baum, firstname.lastname@example.org, 301-975-2763
NIST Releases Gulf of Mexico Crude Oil Reference Material
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a new certified reference material to support the federal government’s Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) in the wake of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. The new Standard Reference Material, Gulf of Mexico Crude Oil” (SRM 2779), will be used as a quality control material for the ongoing environmental impact analyses for the NRDA effort.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted in the discharge of tens of thousands of barrels of oil per day from the seafloor into the Gulf of Mexico. In what has become the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a wide expanse and variety of natural resources have been exposed to and potentially impacted by oil. During the NRDA, tens of thousands of environmental samples including oil in various forms, water, sediment and biological samples are being collected and analyzed to characterize both pre-spill and post-spill environmental conditions.
The petroleum crude oil for SRM 2779 was collected on May 21, 2010, on the drillship Discoverer Enterprise from the insertion tube that was receiving oil directly from the Macondo well during response operations. The oil was collected in 2.5 liter glass bottles and transported via a defined chain of custody to a laboratory in College Station, Texas. A portion was subsequently provided to NIST under the authority of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for use in the preparation of SRM 2779.
Using the data from three independent methods of analysis performed at NIST as well as one set of data from an interlaboratory study coordinated by NIST and NOAA, certified and reference values (as mass fractions) are provided for a number of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) along with reference values (as mass fractions) for a number of alkylated PAH groups, hopanes and steranes. These compound classes are among those used as indicators for the presence of petroleum crude oil. Each unit of SRM 2779 consists of five ampoules, each containing 1.2 mL of crude oil.
Technical details of SRM 2779, Gulf of Mexico Crude Oil, are available at https://www-s.nist.gov/srmors/view_detail.cfm?srm=2779.
Standard Reference Materials are among the most widely distributed and used products from NIST. The agency prepares, analyzes and distributes about 1,300 different materials that are used throughout the world to check the accuracy of instruments, validate test procedures and serve as the basis for quality control standards worldwide.
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NIST to Expand Work on Emergency Communications to Support FirstNet
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will significantly expand its work in support of an advanced wireless communications system for the nation’s first responders and emergency workers as a result of new legislation.
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-96), signed into law by President Obama on February 22, creates a new "First Responder Network Authority" (FirstNet) within the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to build a broadband network for police, firefighters, emergency medical service professionals and other public safety officials. The program will be financed from the proceeds of a special auction of radio-frequency broadcast spectrum rights by the Federal Communications Commission.
FirstNet is intended to provide a nationwide broadband network for emergency first responders based on a set of common standards to ensure interoperability across public safety and police agencies at state, local, and federal levels. As part of this effort, NIST will work with NTIA, FirstNet, private industry and the public safety organizations to conduct research and develop new standards, technologies and applications to advance public safety communications.
Core components of this program will include documenting public safety requirements and driving the adoption of those requirements into the appropriate standards; developing the capability for communications between currently deployed public safety narrow band systems and the future nationwide broadband network; and establishing a roadmap that seeks to capture and address public safety’s needs beyond what can be provided by the current generation of broadband technology and driving technological progress in that direction. NIST intends to use a combination of in-house research, competitive grants and transfers to other federal agencies to accomplish these objectives.
The act allocates up to $300 million to NIST, dependent on the funds received from future spectrum auctions, to be spent through 2022.
For more on NIST’s work on emergency communications, visit www.nist.gov/oles/public_safety.cfm.
Media Contact: Michael Baum, firstname.lastname@example.org, 301-975-2763
Baldrige Award Ceremony is Bonus for Attendees at Quest for Excellence
Register today for the 24th annual Quest for Excellence® conference and you’ll get something extra: an invitation to attend the ceremony and reception honoring the 2010 and 2011 recipients of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
Twenty-five current and past Baldrige Award winning organizations will share their best practices in leadership, strategic planning, customer focus and more at this year’s Quest, which will be held April 16-18, 2012, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. On the evening of Sunday, April 15, Quest attendees are invited to participate in the Baldrige Award ceremony and reception for the 11 most recent recipients of the nation’s highest Presidential honor for performance excellence through innovation, improvement and visionary leadership.
The 2011 Baldrige Award recipients—listed with their category—are:
The winners of the 2010 Award are:
Quest will feature two in-depth plenary sessions featuring the senior executives of the 2011 recipients, as well as numerous concurrent sessions from which to choose, including:
Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, email@example.com, 301-975-3025
NIST Releases Final Smart Grid 'Framework 2.0' Document
An updated roadmap for the Smart Grid is now available from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which recently finished reviewing and incorporating public comments into the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, Release 2.0.
The 2.0 Framework lays out a plan for transforming the nation's aging electric power system into an interoperable Smart Grid—a network that will integrate information and communication technologies with the power-delivery infrastructure, enabling two-way flows of energy and communications.
The final version reflects input from a wide range of stakeholder groups, including representatives from trade associations, standards organizations, utilities and industries associated with the power grid.
“Release 2.0 represents a significant update to the NIST Release 1.0 Framework,” said George Arnold, the National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at NIST. “In addition to the comments received through the public review, we vetted the draft framework in advance with the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) and other groups. The document reflects the consensus-based process the SGIP uses to coordinate development of Smart Grid standards.”
The SGIP was created by NIST in November 2009 to provide an open forum for members to collaborate on standards development. Through the SGIP, NIST collaborates with the private sector in coordinating Smart Grid standards. Its more than 1,900 volunteer members from 740 organizations serve as technical experts who work together to create usable standards for the Smart Grid. Hundreds of such standards—covering matters ranging from wireless communication to home energy meters to electric cars—are needed to ensure the many elements of the Smart Grid will work together seamlessly.
Just as its draft version did, the final 2.0 Framework adds 22 standards, specifications and guidelines to the 75 standards NIST recommended in the 1.0 version of January 2010 as being applicable to the Smart Grid. Further improvements and additions to the 1.0 version include:
Media Contact: Chad Boutin, firstname.lastname@example.org, 301-975-4261
NIST Announces Up to $1M in Funding for Two New Manufacturing Extension Partnership Centers
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced today that it is soliciting proposals to establish two new Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers in South Dakota and Kentucky. NIST has $1 million in funding to support the centers, which would join the existing network of more than 400 MEP centers and field offices in place nationwide and in Puerto Rico. The centers primarily help small- and medium-sized manufacturers enhance their productivity, innovative capacity, technological performance and global competitiveness.
Additional information on the application process is available in the notice of Federal Funding Opportunity posted at Grants.gov (www.grants.gov) under Funding Opportunity Number 2012-NIST-MEP-SD-AND-KY-01 and the Federal Register notice of available funding at www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-03-01/pdf/2012-4959.pdf. NIST MEP will hold an information webinar for organizations considering applying to this opportunity on March 19, 2012 at 2 pm EST. More information is available on the NIST MEP Web site www.nist.gov/mep.
Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo, email@example.com, 301-975-6343
Revision of SP 800-53 Addresses Current Cybersecurity Threats, Adds Privacy Controls
A major revision of a Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) publication released today by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) adds guidance for combating new information security threats and incorporates new privacy controls to the framework that federal agencies use to protect their information and information systems.
To handle insider threats, supply chain risk, mobile and cloud computing technologies, and other cybersecurity issues and challenges, NIST has released Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations, Special Publication (SP) 800-53, Revision 4 (Initial Public Draft). The document is considered a principal catalog of security standards and guidelines used by federal government agencies that NIST is required to publish by law.
“The changes we propose in Revision 4 are directly linked to the current state of the threat space—the capabilities, intentions and targeting activities of adversaries—and analysis of attack data over time,” explained Ron Ross, FISMA Implementation Project Leader and NIST fellow.
The revision also adds a new privacy appendix to the publication that provides privacy controls and associated implementation guidance. “Privacy and security are complementary, so we decided to combine them in SP 800-53," said Ross.
Other areas addressed in the update in addition to those mentioned above include application security, firmware integrity, distributed systems and advanced persistent threat. “Many organizations are concerned about advanced persistent threats, so we added new controls that will allow organizations to use different strategies to combat those types of threats,” Ross added.
NIST also modified its guidance on security assurance Appendix E, which outlines how agencies can establish measures of confidence that the security controls put in place are providing the necessary security capability to protect critical missions and business operations. Ross explains, “Having security functionality in your information systems without the appropriate assurance is like skydiving without a backup parachute—you don’t need it until you need it. And without it, the outcome is very predictable.”
As part of the update to SP 800-53, NIST addressed potential gaps in coverage, added new security controls and control enhancements, provided additional supplemental guidance for these controls, and clarified security control requirements and specification language. Keeping the potential threats in mind, the security control baselines were updated and minimum assurance requirements revised.
This document, when finalized, will be used by the entire federal government. The project was conducted as part of the Joint Task Force Transformation Initiative, which is composed of security experts from NIST, the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, the Committee on National Security Systems, and the Department of Homeland Security.
The public draft of Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations, Special Publication (SP) 800-53, Revision 4 may be found at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/PubsDrafts.html#SP-800-53-Rev.%204. Comments on SP 800-53, Revision 4 are requested by April 6, 2012. Email should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, email@example.com, 301-975-5661
Guidance on Wireless Local Area Network Security is Close at Hand
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released in final form a guide to enhanced security for wireless local area networks (WLAN). A WLAN is a group of wireless networking devices within a limited geographic area, such as an office building, that exchange data through radio communications.
Guidelines for Securing Wireless Local Area Networks (NIST Special Publication 800-153) recommends that valuable information be protected by integrating security into every step of the system development process—from initiation to maintenance to disposal.
Employees can use mobile devices, including laptops and smart phones, connected to the WLAN to perform tasks that could be done on desktops, but with the freedom to work anywhere in the covered area. While WLANs can improve productivity, they can add an additional security challenge. WLANs often have weaker configurations and authentication processes that make them vulnerable for attackers to penetrate and gain access to sensitive information.
The WLAN’s security depends upon how well all of its components, including client devices and wireless switches, are secured. The new guide provides recommendations to improve security on such topics as standardizing WLAN security configurations, including configuration design, implementation, evaluation and maintenance; and provides guidelines concerning the selection of monitoring tools and the frequency of security monitoring.
The publication supplements other NIST publications on WLAN security and points readers to other NIST publications on system planning, development and security activities.
The recommendations included in SP 800-153 are applicable to the protection of unclassified wireless networks and of unclassified facilities that are within range of unclassified wireless networks.
SP800-153 is available at www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=910174. For a guide to additional NIST publications on computer security, including wireless security, see the Computer Security Resource Center list at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/index.html.
Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org, 301-975-5661