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September 2001

In This Issue:
bullet NIST Hair ID System May Help Put ‘Locks’ on Criminals
bullet How Fast Does Fire Spread? See for Yourself in New NIST Video
bullet NIST Standard to Help Satellite Correctly ‘See the Light’
bullet Turning Seaweed into a Scientific Tool
bullet Old Ticker at NIST Gets a New Lease on Life
bullet Classroom Presentation on Cryogenic Magic Available
bullet Tech Trivia

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Law Enforcement

NIST Hair ID System May Help Put ‘Locks’ on Criminals

The hairs found at crime scenes today cannot be matched with certainty to a specific person. But a forensic technique developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology now undergoing a second formal study—after encouraging initial results—someday may help identify criminals by chemical components in hair.

While making environmental measurements in 1993, NIST analytical chemist Bruce Benner adapted supercritical fluid extraction (a process similar to one used for decaffeinating coffee) to evaluate hair. The technique allows the chemical components of hair samples to be identified with gas chromatography and mass spectrometry equipment already used in crime labs. The chemicals can be either natural (such as cholesterol) or artificially deposited (such as shampoo).

A 1999 study using hair samples from 20 people, funded by the National Institute of Justice through NIST’s Office of Law Enforcement Standards, found consistent chemical profiles for individuals. The new study—using FBI and commercially available hair samples from at least 100 people—will examine the extent to which the chemical profile of hair resembles a fingerprint unique to an individual. The work will be performed primarily by NIST/National Research Council post-doctoral fellow John Goodpaster.

FBI scientists hope that the new study will prove the NIST technique provides a faster, more reliable identification-by-hair method than traditional visual examination and that it may complement the more recent mitochondrial DNA analysis. Another point of interest for the FBI is the fact that the NIST technique requires only very small amounts of hair, thereby leaving plenty of sample for other forensic tests.

Media Contact:
Michael Newman,  (301) 975-3025



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Fire Safety

How Fast Does Fire Spread? See for Yourself in New NIST Video

People who are experts about fire know that the blazes depicted in movies and TV give the wrong impression about how fast a fire can really grow and how much time is truly available for a person to escape from it. This misinformation may cause people to underestimate fire dangers and make bad, sometimes tragic, decisions in a real fire situation.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory has assembled a 10-minute collection of fires on video taken from recent large-scale tests conducted at the institute. The program clearly portrays how fires grow in furnished rooms from ignition to flashover (when all combustibles in a room burst into flames and the fire spreads rapidly). The video’s segments show the ignition and burning of (1) a dry Christmas tree in a living room (flashover in 45 seconds), (2) an upholstered sofa in a living room (flashover in four minutes) and (3) a wastebasket near an office workstation (flashover in about five minutes).

The BFRL flashover video is an extremely effective tool for fire departments, schools and other organizations to use in safety education programs. For a free VHS copy, send a request to Nelson Bryner by fax at (301) 975-4052 or by e-mail to

Media Contact:
John Blair, (301) 975-4261Up


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NIST Standard to Help Satellite Correctly ‘See the Light’

A small glass disk designed and manufactured by the National Institute of Standards and Technology soon will be orbiting the Earth aboard a satellite that will provide unusually detailed data about the chemical composition and properties of the planet.

Standard Reference Material 2035, believed to be the first SRM to be used in space, is a wavelength standard for transmission measurements in the ultraviolet, visible and near infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum—the portions closely associated with chemical changes. It will be used to help monitor and validate the performance of spectral imaging equipment aboard OrbView-4, scheduled for launch this month. The project is a joint venture of the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The satellite will be operated by an Orbital affiliate, ORBIMAGE.

Natural and manmade materials on the Earth’s surface each exhibit unique signatures of reflected light from the sun, much of which cannot be captured with either a conventional camera or the human eye. Using detectors that transform the reflected light into electronic signals, OrbView-4 will measure the signatures and identify materials ranging from plant species to minerals to inland and coastal water features. The resulting imagery has many applications, including mineral, oil and gas exploration; forestry, farming and environmental monitoring; and military activities.

SRM 2035 was originally developed for Earth-bound chemical applications in a narrower spectral range but is well suited for the space application because of its small size, light weight, broad spectral coverage and well-characterized temperature dependence.

Media Contact:
Michael Newman,  (301) 975-3025

EDITOR'S NOTE: Unfortunately, on Sept. 21, 2001 (after this issue went to press), OrbView-4's launch vehicle failed to place the craft into its proper orbit. NIST's SRM 2035 may yet soar high as part of an upcoming ozone mapping satellite mission.Up


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Turning Seaweed into a Scientific Tool

With 500 kilograms of freeze-dried seaweed that originated off the shores of Ireland, the National Institute of Standards and Technology plans to help the international community monitor for radioactive contamination from Russian nuclear submarines that were discarded in the Arctic Ocean.

Seaweed is a key oceanic “sink” for long-lived radioactive elements (such as radium and uranium), but there is currently no Standard Reference Material for quality control or validation of methods used in measurements of these elements in seaweed specimens. SRMs are solids, liquids and gases that NIST has characterized for specific physical and chemical properties using state-of-the-art measurement methods. These certified artifacts are used by industry, academia and governments to establish the quality and reliability of devices, goods, medical data and scientific results.

NIST will use its dried seaweed to make an SRM, a benchmark against which seaweed specimens can be compared by scientists monitoring for contamination. The dried seaweed will be bottled, sterilized and sent to experienced laboratories for analysis. NIST then will use statistical techniques to evaluate the data before certifying the SRM as containing specified levels of constituents.

Media Contact:
Michael Baum, (301) 975-2763Up


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Old Ticker at NIST Gets a New Lease on Life

Time may stand still for no man, but the National Institute of Standards and Technology has helped get it back on its feet.

The institute commissioned Phillip Hannah, a precision engineer and master clock maker from Connecticut, to revitalize a historic clock in NIST’s museum collection of scientific and technological artifacts in Gaithersburg, Md. The Riefler Clock, a nearly free pendulum device designed in 1889 by Clemens Riefler, attained an accuracy of a hundredth of a second a day and became the time standard in many astronomical observatories. The National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) purchased the clock in 1904, three years after the agency was established. It was used for precise time interval measurement by NBS until 1929.

Hannah recently disassembled the dormant clock, cleaned all of the pieces that required it, performed necessary rewiring and then set the device in working order. He was impressed with the excellent condition of the clock, since no new parts were needed to achieve the renovation.

NIST engineer Richard Rhorer is now regulating the Riefler Clock to improve its accuracy from a current loss of one second a week to a rate closer to losing one second per month. By comparison, the NIST-F1 cesium fountain atomic clock at NIST’s Boulder, Colo., laboratory neither gains nor loses a second in nearly 20 million years.

Media Contact:
Michael Newman,  (301) 975-3025Up


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Classroom Presentation on Cryogenic Magic Available

Teachers and others who like to visually demonstrate scientific principles for classes and large groups will be interested in a new paper and accompanying animated video from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that details a cryogenics (the science of cold temperatures) “magic show.” This “how-to” kit is the latest addition to more than 20 years of NIST outreach on science and technology to educational organizations.

Several members of NIST’s Materials Reliability Division have assembled the step-by-step plan for creating and performing a presentation that dramatically shows how changing the temperature of materials changes their size and shape as well. The list of materials that can be used includes everything from a banana to a superconducting magnet.

The authors provide an overview of cryogenics, a description of the equipment/supplies needed for the “magic show,” an explanation of the scientific principles behind each experiment, and easy-to-follow instructions on how to perform each experiment using different materials.

For a free copy of “The Magic of Cryogenics,” contact Sarabeth Harris, NIST, MC 104, Boulder, Colo. 80305-3328; (303) 497-3237; Ask for paper no. 29-01. For more information on the cryogenics “magic show,” contact Daniel P. Vigliotti, (303) 497-3351,

Media Contact:
Fred McGehan (Boulder),  (303) 497-3246Up


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Tech Trivia

During World War I, the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) was asked to help address many military needs, from experiments with concrete ships to the making of high-precision gage blocks needed to manufacture interchangeable parts. In some projects, the Institute introduced new fundamental principles and concepts of quantitative measurements to industry. By late 1917, the military services were requesting some sort of scientific work from NBS every 20 minutes.

During the 1940s, Leon Curtiss and his staff at NBS developed a radon emanation and counting system. Radon measurements were important because of exposures to uranium miners in Colorado. In some cases, miners came to NBS and exhaled into a flask of known volume. The flask then was attached to the radon gas handling system, and the activity of the radon in their breath was measured.

To calibrate devices used to measure the forces on large rockets, NBS in the 1960s built a 4.5 meganewton (1 million pound) force machine that was 29.3 meters (96 feet) tall. The device to be calibrated was set at the top of a loading frame, and weights up to 23 metric tons (50,000 pounds) were loaded in increments. NIST still has the nation’s largest universal testing machine, capable of supplying 53.4 meganewton (12 million pounds) of force in compression.

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Editor: Michael E. Newman

Date created: 9/17/01
Last updated: 9/17/01