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Tech Beat - May 28, 2013

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: May 28, 2013
Date Modified: May 28, 2013 

Video Aims to Answer “What is NIST?”

What's the most formidable challenge faced by the staff of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)? Designing atomic clocks accurate for billions of years? Manipulating individual atoms to create new alloys? No, the one task that will even have a quantum physicist shaking in his boots is answering the question, "What is NIST?"

And to make it even more daunting, what if the description must be simple, clearly define the NIST mission, reflect on more than 100 years of history, engage the audience, and be delivered in only two-and-a-half minutes!

Attempting to meet that challenge is a new video on NIST's YouTube channel ( featuring Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. In the video, titled "NIST Illustrated," Gallagher's description of what drives NIST, makes it work and gives it value for all Americans comes to life using "telestration" where an artist's hand rapidly draws words and images that illustrate difficult-to-visualize concepts (such as "innovation," "globalization" and "deep technical roots").

Let us know through comments on our YouTube channel what you think!


Media Contact: Michael E. Newman,, 301-975-3025

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Novel Metamaterial 'Flat Lens' Creates 3D Images in Free Space

Scientists working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated for the first time a new type of lens that bends and focuses ultraviolet (UV) light in such an unusual way that it can create ghostly, 3D images of objects that float in free space.* The easy-to-build lens could lead to improved photolithography, nanoscale manipulation and manufacturing, and even high-resolution three-dimensional imaging, as well as a number of as-yet-unimagined applications in a diverse range of fields.

ultraviolet (UV) metamaterial
A NIST team has created an ultraviolet (UV) metamaterial formed of alternating nanolayers of silver (green) and titanium dioxide (blue). The metamaterial has an angle-independent negative refractive index, enabling it to act as a flat lens. When illuminated with UV light (purple) a sample object of any shape placed on the flat slab of metamaterial is projected as a three-dimensional image in free space on the other side of the slab. Here a ring-shaped opening in an opaque sheet on the left of the slab is replicated in light on the right. Bottom left: Scanning electron micrograph of a ring-shaped opening in a chromium sheet located on the surface of a flat slab of metamaterial. Bottom right: Optical micrograph of the image projected beyond the slab under UV illumination, demonstrating that the metamaterial slab acts as a flat lens.
Credit: Lezec/NIST
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"Conventional lenses only capture two dimensions of a three-dimensional object," says NIST's Ting Xu. "Our flat lens is able to project three-dimensional images of three-dimensional objects that correspond one-to-one with the imaged object."

The new lens is formed from a flat slab of metamaterial with special characteristics that cause light to flow backward—a counterintuitive situation in which waves and energy travel in opposite directions, creating a negative refractive index. The new material is a realization of a theory first proposed in 1967 by Russian physicist Victor Veselago. In addition to describing how a negative refraction index could occur, Veselago reasoned that a material with a refractive index of -1 could be used to make a lens that is flat, as opposed to traditional refractive lenses. A flat lens with a refractive index of -1 could be used to directly image three-dimensional objects, projecting a three-dimensional replica into free space. 

A negative-index flat lens like this also has been predicted to enable the transfer of image details substantially smaller than the wavelength of light and create higher-resolution images than are possible with lenses made of positive-index materials such as glass.

Researchers have managed to create a number of metamaterials, which are engineered on a subwavelength scale, to achieve Veselago's vision. But until now, making metamaterials that work in the UV has been impossible because it required making structures with features as small as 10 nanometers, or 10 billionths of a meter. 

Researchers working at NIST took inspiration from a theoretical metamaterial design recently proposed by a group at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Holland. Aside from achieving record-short wavelengths, their metamaterial lens is inherently easy to fabricate. It doesn't rely on nanoscale patterns, but instead is a simple sandwich of alternating nanometer-thick layers of silver and titanium dioxide, the construction of which is routine.

Their lens has a focal length of about half a millionth of a meter—challenging to achieve with conventional refractive optics such as glass lenses—and the metamaterial can be turned on and off using higher frequency light as a switch, allowing the flat lens to also act as a shutter with no moving parts.

"Our lens will offer other researchers greater flexibility for manipulating UV light at small length scales," says Lezec. "With its high photon energies, UV light has a myriad of applications, including photochemistry, fluorescence microscopy and semiconductor manufacturing. That, and the fact that our lens is so easy to make, should encourage other researchers to explore its possibilities."

The new work was performed in collaboration with researchers from the Maryland NanoCenter at the University of Maryland, College Park; Syracuse University; and the University of British Columbia, Kelowna, Canada.

For more details, see the May 23, 2013, NIST news announcement, "The Better to See You With: Scientists Build Record-Setting Metamaterial Flat Lens" at

* T. Xu, A. Agrawal, M. Abashin, K.J. Chau and H.J. Lezec. All-angle negative refraction and active flat lensing of ultraviolet light. Nature. 497, 470–474 Published online: May 23. 2013. doi:10.1038/nature12158

Media Contact: Chad Boutin,, 301-975-4261

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NIST and Partners Offer Solution to Communications Impasse in Factories

Once uncommunicative industrial robots and machine tools are now beginning to talk turkey, thanks to a prototype application developed by a team of partner companies led by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM). This application was successfully demonstrated and tested by manufacturing researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The practical advance stems from a “generic bridge” devised to span a costly, performance-slowing language barrier in factories. In effect, the innovation is a translator that converts data and messages written in two languages—one preferred by robotics researchers, ROS-Industrial, and the other by the builders of machine tools, MTConnect—into a form understandable to both.

The link eliminates the need to do a full-blown conversion of computer codes to get robots and machine tools from different vendors to handle complex interactions smoothly. Instead, using the bridge entails writing the equivalent of a mutually understood introduction—a “wrapper” in software parlance—that makes it possible for the entire message to get through.

In the recent test at NIST, the software innovation enabled a robot conversant in ROS-Industrial to load and unload parts into an MTConnect-talking lathe for cutting, precisely when the machine tool was ready to perform the task.

Without the bridge, such a synchronized interaction would have required many hours—even days—of reprogramming in both languages. With the bridge, coordination between machine tool and lathe was accomplished in a few hours.

“The goal of this project and follow-up efforts is to make it as easy as possible to integrate factory robots and machine tools and also to reconfigure them in response to changes in orders or customer requirements,” explains Fred Proctor, leader of NIST’s Smart Manufacturing and Construction Control Systems Program.

The communications logjam between robots and machine tools made by different vendors might be surprising to users of everyday electronics and communication equipment. Thanks to widely used standards, smart phones, computers, printers, and a variety of other products have almost effortless “plug and play interoperability.” This is not the case for equipment used in manufacturing operations, where operating systems and specifications for communication often are proprietary, Proctor explains.

The “meet-me-in-the-middle approach” for MTConnect and ROS-Industrial appears to be a practical solution to the proprietary-systems hurdle, he adds.

Sponsored by the Association for Manufacturing Technology, MTConnect is a relatively new open-source standard for collecting and communicating real-time information from manufacturing processes and for integrating factory equipment from a variety of vendors. As the number of makers of machine tools and supporting equipment and software adopting the standard rises, the variety of MTConnect applications also is increasing.

ROS-Industrial sprouted from an open-source robot operating system (ROS) originally developed by a group of researchers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The grassroots ROS standard simplified the task of linking assorted experimental research robots as well as add-on equipment such as sensors or grippers. A consortium organized by the Southwest Research Institute is now extending ROS to industrial robots and hardening it for manufacturing uses.

NIST funded the development effort at NCDMM, a nonprofit organization that develops and transitions improvements in manufacturing technology to DOD and its suppliers. The NCDMM team consisted of researchers from System Insights, Southwest Research Institute, and the Association for Manufacturing Technology. NIST and its collaborators are now exploring options for testing the generic bridge in a real factory.

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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New Filtration Material Could Make Petroleum Refining Cheaper, More Efficient

view of the molecular structure of the MOF
This view of the molecular structure of the MOF shows the triangular channels that run through the material. The walls of these channels trap the lower-octane components of gas while allowing the higher-octane molecules to pass through, potentially providing a more efficient and cost effective way to refine high-octane gasoline.
Credit: Science/AAAS

A newly synthesized material might provide a dramatically improved method for separating the highest-octane components of gasoline. Measurements at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have clarified why. The research team, which included scientists from NIST and several other universities, has published its findings in the journal Science.*

Created in the laboratory of Jeffrey Long, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, the material is a metal-organic framework, or MOF, which can be imagined as a sponge with microscopic holes. The innumerable interior walls of the MOF form triangular channels that selectively trap only the lower-octane components based on their shape, separating them easily from the higher-octane molecules in a way that could prove far less expensive than the industry's current method. The Long laboratory and UC Berkeley have applied for a patent on the MOF, which is known by its chemical formula, Fe2(bdp)3.

High-octane gasolines, the ultra or premium blends at fueling stations, are more expensive than regular unleaded gasoline due to the difficulty of separating out the right type of molecules from petroleum. Petroleum includes several slightly different versions of the same molecule that have identical molecular formulae but varying shapes—called isomers. Creating premium fuel requires a refinery to boil the mixture at precise temperatures to separate the isomers with the most chemical energy. The trouble is, four of these isomers—two of which are high octane, the other two far lower—have only slightly different boiling points, making the overall process both challenging and costly.

The new MOF, however, could allow refineries to sidestep this problem by essentially trapping the lowest-octane isomers while letting the others pass through. The lowest-octane isomers are more linear and can nestle closer to the MOF walls, so when a mixture of isomers passes through the MOF, the less desired isomers stick to its surface—somewhat akin to the way a wet piece of paper sticks to a wall.

Matthew Hudson and his colleagues at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) used neutron powder diffraction, a technique for determining molecular structure, to explore why the MOF has the right shape to selectively separate the isomers. Their research was essential to validate the team's model of how the MOF adsorbs the low-octane isomers.

"It's easier to separate the isomers with higher octane ratings this way rather than with the standard method, making it more efficient," says Hudson, a postdoctoral fellow at the NCNR. "And based on the lower temperatures needed, it's also far less energy-intensive, meaning it should be less expensive." Hudson adds that while industrial scientists will need to work out how to apply the discovery in refineries, the new MOF appears to be robust enough in harsh conditions to be used repeatedly a great many times, potentially reducing the necessary investment by a petroleum company.

* Z.R. Herm, B.M. Wiers, J.A. Mason, J.M. van Baten, M.R. Hudson, P. Zajdel, C.M. Brown, N. Masciocchi, R. Krishna and J.R. Long. Separation of hexane isomers in a metal-organic framework with triangular channels. Science, May 24, 2013. DOI: 10.1126/science.12334071

Media Contact: Chad Boutin,, 301-975-4261

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Workshop Identifies Research Priorities to Mitigate Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface

Over 46 million residential structures in the United States are in areas at risk of wildfires. A new publication* from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) identifies a set of research needs aimed at preventing or managing this growing threat to about 70,000 communities located in the so-called wildland-urban interface (WUI).

witch fire
The Witch fire, the largest of the fires that occurred during the 2007 California firestorm, burned 80,124 hectares and destroyed 1125 residential structures.
Credit: NIST
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Identified by experts at a 2012 workshop organized by NIST, the top three recommended topics warranting sustained research efforts focus on:

  • "hardening" buildings, so that they resist ignition—by flames, embers and heat;
  • developing standards and tests of building performance that improve the "survivability" of structures exposed to WUI fires; and
  • improving the understanding of "how vegetation, topography, climate and construction cause structure ignition and spread of fires."

On average, WUI fires destroy 3,000 buildings annually. They accounted for six of the 10 most costly fires in the United States over the last 100 years. Five of these fires occurred in California, where the incidence of wildfires currently is up 47 percent this year over last.

The workshop provided a forum for wildland-urban interface fire experts to discuss challenges, identify research needs, and establish research priorities to improve the fire resistance of WUI communities. NIST will incorporate the identified research needs into its WUI-related efforts, which concentrate on developing measurement-related knowledge and tools that underpin actions to make communities more resistant to WUI fires.

In addition to distilling research priorities, the new report, Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Research Needs, contains eight overview presentations on the WUI fire problem by stakeholders from industry, research and standards organizations, the fire service and state government. To download the 117-page report, go to:

*J.L. Pellegrino, N.P. Bryner and E.L. Johnsson. Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Research Needs—Workshop Summary Report (NIST Special Publication 1150). May 2013.

Media Contact: Mark Bello,, 301-975-3776

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Happy World Metrology Day!!

(Originally published on May 20, 2013.)

Measurements define your daily life. From the amount of toothpaste in the tube to the calories in the bagel to your weight on the scale (it’s not our fault you ate that bagel!), not to mention all the engineering that went into making those things, measurements are involved in every moment of every day of your life. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading this at all without measurements. And that’s why the theme of this year’s World Metrology Day is “Measurements in Daily Life.”

Man pumping gas
We can’t control the price of gasoline, but NIST measurements help to make sure that you get what you’re paying for at the pump.
Credit: Arena Creative/
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World Metrology Day celebrates the signing of the Treaty of the Meter on May 20, 1875. By signing the treaty, representatives from 17 nations, including the United States, recognized the importance of worldwide uniformity of measurements and established a collaborative global framework for the advancement of measurement science.

Each year, World Metrology Day is organized and celebrated jointly by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), which helps to promote international metrology with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the International Organization of Legal Metrology (OIML), an intergovernmental treaty organization that promotes harmony in legal metrology.

Because every aspect of modern life depends in some way on measurement, there’s virtually no aspect of American life in which NIST is not involved. And for the sake of brevity, no attempt will be made to recount them all. (However, if you’re curious, see this brief rundown.) But in the spirit of World Metrology Day, here are a few of the ways that measurements, and NIST measurements especially, impact your daily life.

In the past year, NIST has sold 33,000 standard reference materials and performed 17,000 calibrations that help to ensure that you aren’t overexposed when you get an X-ray and that the nutritional information on your frozen French bread pizza or other food is correct.

NIST also provides the standards and training that your state weights and measures officials need to ensure you’re treated fairly in the marketplace and that you get what you pay for at the grocery store and the gas station and anywhere else where you buy products that are sold by quantity.

We have also been making sure that your clocks that rely on our standard cesium clock in Boulder, Colo., are getting the signal.

Besides a clock, you also probably have a laser pointer for, well, pointing at things and driving your pets crazy, but did you know that many of them do not meet their own labeled standards for levels of both visible and invisible light and that you should never shine them in your eyes or anyone else’s eyes (or your pet’s eyes)? Now you do.

Heavy metals (not the headbanging kind) such as lead are bad for your health and the health of your children. While it’s impossible to completely remove lead from our environment, we can alleviate the risk to our children by giving the people who make sure their toys are safe the tools they need to detect small concentrations of lead.

So set your watch and play with your kids (and pets!) this World Metrology Day and think about how all those measurements add to your life.

Media Contact: Mark Esser,, (301) 975-8735

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NIST Scientists Win 2014 Rank Prizes for Chip-Scale Atomic Clock

Physicists John Kitching and Svenja Knappe of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will receive 2014 Rank Prizes in optoelectronics "for the creation and demonstration of the first chip-scale atomic clock."

chip scale clock
The original NIST chip-scale atomic clock in 2004.
Credit: NIST
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Sharing the prize will be Leo Hollberg, who hired Kitching and Knappe at NIST and led their research group in 2004 when the chip-scale atomic clock was invented.* Hollberg left NIST in 2008 and is now a member of the physics faculty at Stanford University (Palo Alto, Calif.).

The Rank Prizes are presented every two years by the charitable Rank Foundation in the United Kingdom. The prizes are awarded to individuals who have made a significant contribution to certain scientific fields, including optoelectronics, "where an initial idea has been carried through to practical applications that have, or will, demonstrably benefit mankind." Lord Rank established the foundation to benefit fields related to his career, including, in the case of optoelectronics, the film industry.

NIST's chip-scale atomic clock made highly accurate timekeeping portable. This is useful, for example, when navigating locations where GPS doesn't work such as in underwater resource exploration. Clocks of a similar basic design were commercialized several years ago. NIST's early experimental chip-scale atomic clock recently went on display in the Smithsonian Institution's Time and Navigation exhibit (

Kitching, Knappe and Hollberg also developed a spinoff technology, chip-scale atomic magnetometers, first introduced in 2005. Kitching and Knappe are now studying the possible use of these devices in medical applications such as measuring human brain activity.**

The Rank Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in London in February 2014. The prize includes 15,000 British pounds (approximately $23,000) each for Kitching and Knappe.

For more on the prize, see

* See 2004 NIST news release, "NIST Unveils Chip-Scale Atomic Clock," at
** See 2012 NIST Tech Beat article, "NIST Mini-sensor Measures Magnetic Activity in Human Brain," at

Media Contact: Laura Ost,, 303-497-4880

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