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Tech Beat - January 14, 2014

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: January 14, 2014
Date Modified: January 14, 2014 

Layered Security: Carbon Nanotubes Promise Improved Flame-Resistant Coating

Using an approach akin to assembling a club sandwich at the nanoscale, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have succeeded in crafting a uniform, multi-walled carbon-nanotube-based coating that greatly reduces the flammability of foam commonly used in upholstered furniture and other soft furnishings.

foam coating
An easy-to-apply, NIST-developed coating significantly reduces the flammability of foam used in furniture. The thin coating is deposited onto the surface of all the nooks and crannies of the porous foam (top), with heat-dissipating multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) uniformly distributed throughout (bottom). (Color added for clarity.)
Credit: Kim/NIST
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The flammability of the nanotube-coated polyurethane foam was reduced 35 percent compared with untreated foam. As important, the coating prevented melting and pooling of the foam, which generates additional flames that are a major contributor to the spread of fires.

Nationwide, fires in which upholstered furniture is the first item ignited account for about 6,700 home fires annually and result in 480 civilian deaths, or almost 20 percent of home fire deaths between 2006 and 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The innovative NIST technique squeezes nanotubes between two everyday polymers and stacks four of these trilayers on top of each other. The result is a plastic-like coating that is thinner than one-hundredth the diameter of human hair and has flame-inhibiting nanotubes distributed evenly throughout.

The brainchild of NIST materials scientists Yeon Seok Kim and Rick Davis, the fabrication method is described in the January 2014 issue of Thin Solid Films.* Kim and Davis write that the technique can be used with a variety of types of nanoparticles to improve the quality of surface coatings for diverse applications.

The pair experimented with a variety of layer-by-layer coating methods before arriving at their triple-decker approach. All had failed to meet their three key objectives: entire coverage of the foam's porous surface, uniform distribution of the nanotubes, and the practicality of the method. Inmost of these trials, the nanotubes—cylinders of carbon atoms resembling rolls of chicken wire—did not adhere strongly to the foam surface.

So, Kim and Davis opted to doctor the nanotubes themselves, borrowing a technique often used in cell culture to make DNA molecules stickier. The method attached nitrogen-containing molecules—called amine groups—to the nanotube exteriors.

This step proved critical: The doctored nanotubes were uniformly distributed and clung tenaciously to the polymer layers above and below. As a result, the coating fully exploits the nanotubes' rapid heat-dissipating capability.

Gram for gram, the resulting coating confers much greater resistance to ignition and burning than achieved with the brominated flame retardants commonly used to treat soft furnishings today. As important, says Davis, a "protective char layer" forms when the nanotube-coated foam is exposed to extreme heat, creating a barrier that prevents the formation of melt pools.

"This kind of technology has the potential to reduce the fire threat associated with burning soft furniture in homes by about a third," Davis says.

*Y.S. Kim and R. Davis. Multi-walled carbon nanotube layer-by-layer coatings with a trilayer structure to reduce foam flammability. Thin Solid Films 550 (2014) 184-189.

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

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Quantum Physics Could Make Secure, Single-Use Computer Memories Possible

Computer security systems may one day get a boost from quantum physics, as a result of recent research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Computer scientist Yi-Kai Liu has devised a way to make a security device that has proved notoriously difficult to build—a "one-shot" memory unit, whose contents can be read only a single time.

The "one-shot" memory devices that recent NIST research might make possible can be envisioned as physical keys that can only be used a single time, a useful feature for computer security applications.
Credit: Talbott/NIST
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The research, which Liu is presenting at this week's Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science conference,* shows in theory how the laws of quantum physics could allow for the construction of such memory devices. One-shot memories would have a wide range of possible applications such as protecting the transfer of large sums of money electronically. A one-shot memory might contain two authorization codes: one that credits the recipient's bank account and one that credits the sender's bank account, in case the transfer is canceled. Crucially, the memory could only be read once, so only one of the codes can be retrieved, and hence, only one of the two actions can be performed—not both.

"When an adversary has physical control of a device—such as a stolen cell phone—software defenses alone aren't enough; we need to use tamper-resistant hardware to provide security," Liu says. "Moreover, to protect critical systems, we don't want to rely too much on complex defenses that might still get hacked. It's better if we can rely on fundamental laws of nature, which are unassailable."

Unfortunately, there is no fundamental solution to the problem of building tamper-resistant chips, at least not using classical physics alone. So scientists have tried involving quantum mechanics as well, because information that is encoded into a quantum system behaves differently from a classical system.

Liu is exploring one approach, which stores data using quantum bits, or "qubits," which use quantum properties such as magnetic spin to represent digital information. Using a technique called "conjugate coding," two secret messages—such as separate authorization codes—can be encoded into the same string of qubits, so that a user can retrieve either one of the two messages. But as the qubits can only be read once, the user cannot retrieve both.

The risk in this approach stems from a more subtle quantum phenomenon: "entanglement," where two particles can affect each other even when separated by great distances. If an adversary is able to use entanglement, he can retrieve both messages at once, breaking the security of the scheme.

However, Liu has observed that in certain kinds of physical systems, it is very difficult to create and use entanglement, and shows in his paper that this obstacle turns out to be an advantage: Liu presents a mathematical proof that if an adversary is unable to use entanglement in his attack, that adversary will never be able to retrieve both messages from the qubits. Hence, if the right physical systems are used, the conjugate coding method is secure after all.

"It's fascinating how entanglement—and the lack thereof—is the key to making this work," Liu says. "From a practical point of view, these quantum devices would be more expensive to fabricate, but they would provide a higher level of security. Right now, this is still basic research. But there's been a lot of progress in this area, so I'm optimistic that this will lead to useful technologies in the real world."

*Y-K Liu. "Building one-time memories from isolated qubits." Paper presented at the ITCS 20-14 Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science meeting, Princeton University, Jan. 11-14, 2014. More info at

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

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NIST-MEP Supply Chain Optimization Program to Aid U.S. Manufacturers

After a successful pilot project held in five states, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has launched a new supply chain optimization program to help U.S. manufacturers become more competitive.

supply chain workflow
Credit: © Dmitry/

According to John Remsey, a lead subject matter expert for the effort, manufacturers of any size can benefit from the program, which seeks to increase competitive advantage through stronger, more collaborative supply chains. "Our goal is to help manufacturers align their corporate strategy to their supply chain strategy," says Remsey. "When disruptions occur due to natural or systemic factors, manufacturers with a supply chain strategy are able to respond more quickly."

The program establishes a coaching and mentoring partnership between MEP's subject matter experts and participating manufacturers to address barriers to effective supply chains. NIST MEP surveyed manufacturers and found that companies suffer from a lack of collaboration and visibility in their supply chains and lack a synchronized plan for those elements. The survey also showed that many do not understand the true total cost of ownership—the costs for every activity along the supply stream.

MEP centers help to improve supply chain performance by quantifying the needs of the supply chain and focusing on the points in the process that are impeding throughput. Total cost of ownership is one element on which the centers provide guidance, along with executive and partner engagement and risk management.

As part of the pilot effort, the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership helped its client, Syn Strand, avoid $3 million in capital expenditure, realize $2 million in increased annual sales, save $200,000 a year and retain eight full-time jobs—all while achieving a 10 percent increase in capacity and a 10 percent reduction in inventory.

Initial efforts at Syn Strand had focused on the usual suspects of reducing inventory and increasing production speed. The MEP center's supply chain optimization process revealed that the key to improving the company's profitability was better communications with its sister and parent companies and the integration of new planning and scheduling software. This not only helped boost performance at Syn Strand, but provided deep insight into the entire supply chain and benefited the whole company. Read the case study found on the site's 'Resources' page at

Now that the program is being expanded to more centers, manufacturers can work with their local MEP center to tailor a plan to their own needs. Visit for a complete listing of program offerings.

Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo,, 301-975-6343

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NIST Seeks Input in Advance of Request for Proposals to Support National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence

The National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) is inviting comments on a Partial Draft Request for Proposals (RFP) for a contractor to operate a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) to support the mission of the NCCoE. The FFRDC will be the first solely dedicated to enhancing the security of the nation's information systems.

The NCCoE was established in partnership with the state of Maryland and Montgomery County in February 2012. The center is a public-private entity that helps businesses secure their data and digital infrastructure by bringing together experts from industry, government and academia to find practical solutions for today's most pressing cybersecurity needs.

Following three Federal Register Notices announcing its intention to establish a FFRDC to support the cybersecurity center, NIST issued the Partial Draft RFP to give potential contractors a better understanding of the government's requirements. This process should also increase efficiency in proposal preparation and evaluation, negotiation and contract award.

FFRDCs are operated by a university or consortium of universities, other not-for-profit or nonprofit organization or an industrial firm, as an autonomous organization or as an identifiable separate operating unit of a parent organization. The centers work in the public interest and provide a highly efficient way to leverage and rapidly assemble resources and scientific and engineering talent, both public and private. By design, they have greater access to government and supplier data, and are required to be free from organizational conflicts of interest as well as bias toward any particular company, technology or product—key attributes, given the NCCoE's collaborative nature.

FFRDCs can have a number of structures that reflect various balances of contractor/government control and ownership. In the case of the NCCoE, federal staff will provide overall management of the center, and the FFRDC will support its mission through three major task areas: research, development, engineering and technical support; program/project management; and facilities management.

The Partial Draft RFP outlines NIST's plan to award a single Indefinite-Delivery/Indefinite-Quantity type contract with firm-fixed price, labor-hour or cost-reimbursement task orders. Specific work to be performed will be detailed in task orders. The proposed base period for the contract is 5 years, with a maximum amount of $400 million for that period.

Access the Partial Draft RFP at Interested parties have until 5 p.m. Eastern Time, Jan. 17, 2014, to submit their comments. NIST will hold an industry day Jan. 8, 2014, that will include discussion of the acquisition process and a question and answer session. Register for the industry day at by Jan. 6, 2014.

Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo,, 301-975-6343

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First Members of New National Commission on Forensic Science Named

The U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have announced the appointment of 33 individuals to a newly created National Commission on Forensic Science.

Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.

The commission is co-chaired by Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. Nelson Santos, deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Forensic Sciences at the Drug Enforcement Administration, and John Butler, special assistant to the NIST director for forensic science, serve as vice-chairs. There are an additional six ex officio members.

Details are in the Jan. 10, 2014, NIST news announcement, "U.S. Departments of Justice and Commerce Name Experts to First-Ever National Commission on Forensic Science" at

Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo,, 301-975-6343

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NIST Stars in Media’s Top Science and Technology Stories of 2013

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) advances in atomic clocks and telescope cameras made it into five magazines' lists of the top science and technology stories of 2013.

NIST's ytterbium lattice atomic clocks—the world's most stable clocks as of 2013*—were cited in two media lists of the year's top discoveries. These experimental clocks use about 10,000 rare-earth atom strapped in a lattice of laser light to achieve high stability, which can be thought of as how precisely the duration of each tick matches every other tick. Time magazine's The25 Best Inventions of the Year 2013 include, in the Totally Cool category, A New Atomic Clock. In addition, the French science magazine La Recherche cited advances in atomic clocks, including NIST's ytterbium clocks, as the number six discovery of the year.

A discovery by the South Pole Telescope, which relies on a camera made of NIST's superconducting sensors and amplifiers,** was cited in two magazines' top 10 lists and another magazine's year in review.

Physics World's Top10 Breakthroughs of 2013 include the "first detection of a subtle twist in light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), known as B-mode polarization." This faint signal, caused by ancient light deflecting off matter, maps the distribution of all matter in the universe. This information can be used to study the properties of dark matter, dark energy, the masses of the neutrinos and test models of the evolution of the universe. The magazine cited "improvements in detector technology" as the major reason behind the discovery. The background signal detected in 2013 will be subtracted from future observations of spatial variations in the CMB as scientists look for gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space-time, that would indicate rapid early inflation of the universe.

Astronomy magazine's Top 10 Space Stories of 2013 included the South Pole Telescope's detection of B-mode polarization at number three: Advanced instruments observe the early universe. The magazine called the discovery "an important milestone in research, as it shows that scientists are digging deeper into what the CMB holds." The discovery was also mentioned in Nature magazine's 365 Days: 2013 in review.

*See 2013 NIST Tech Beat article, "NIST Ytterbium Atomic Clocks Set Record for Stability," at
**See 2013 NIST Tech Beat article, "NIST Goes to the End of the Earth for Measurement Science" at and NIST Facebook post at Background information is available in a 2009 NIST news release, "NIST Super-Sensors to Measure 'Signature' of Inflationary Universe," at

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

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