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October 2001

In This Issue:
bullet New State of Matter Yields Nobel Prize for NIST Researcher
bullet It’s a Dirty Job, But Somebody Has to Do It
bullet NIST Helps Close Electronic Nooks to Computer-Using Crooks
bullet Science Friction: Lubricants for Minuscule Machines
bullet NIST ‘Microhotplate’ May Help Search for Extraterrestrial Life
bullet Public Defenders Get Better Defense Against Stabbings
bullet Tech Trivia

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New State of Matter Yields Nobel Prize for NIST Researcher

The three men who completed the 71-year quest for the Bose-Einstein condensate, a search likened by many physicists to the one for the mythical Holy Grail, have been honored with the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics.

The newest Nobel physics laureates are Eric A. Cornell of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Carl E. Wieman of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cornell and Wieman are fellows of JILA, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NIST.

Predicted in 1924 by Albert Einstein, who built on the work of Satyendra Nath Bose, the BEC occurs when individual atoms meld into a “superatom” behaving as a single entity at just a few hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero. Cornell and Wieman first observed the condensate in June 1995. Ketterle achieved the new state of matter two months later and made some of the first studies of its properties.

The BEC allows scientists to study the strange and extremely small world of quantum physics as if they are looking through a giant magnifying glass. Its creation established a new branch of atomic physics that has provided a treasure-trove of scientific discoveries. Future applications of the BEC may include its use in nanotechnology and precision measurement.

The three winners will share a $943,000 prize for their achievements.

Cornell is the second Nobel laureate for NIST. William Phillips, a NIST fellow, shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.

Media Contact:
Collier Smith (Boulder),  (303) 497-3198



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ChemistryFlame with laser beam

It’s a Dirty Job, But Somebody Has to Do It

Chimney sweeps are not the only people who make a living out of soot. Some scientists have devoted careers to studying soot, which turns out to be a somewhat mysterious substance.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory is developing a process to make “designer soot,” a task that—considering the ubiquity of this gritty, grimy material—isn’t as easy as one might think.

The soot produced under controlled conditions in NIST’s spray combustion facility is part of an effort to develop metrology for this material. Today, the physical and chemical properties of soot cannot be measured with certainty, a concern to both industry and government regulators. NIST is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to improve the monitoring of air quality and the understanding of how airborne particulate matter (such as soot) may affect human health. NIST’s role includes the development of standard materials that can be used to calibrate analytical instruments that measure particulate matter.

Researchers plan to control fuel type and combustion conditions so that an easily reproducible “designer soot” recipe can be developed.

Potential applications for this research extend beyond atmospheric science and environmental monitoring. For example, a greater understanding of the chemistry behind carbon particulate formation would be very useful to persons working in fire research (including NIST’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory, which does extensive studies of soot properties, behavior and impacts) and nanotechnology.

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


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NIST Helps Close Electronic Nooks to Computer-Using Crooks

Classic bits of evidence collected by police at a crime scene include the smoking gun, fingerprints and lipstick on a glass. However, today’s investigators often must search beyond the obvious for the missing piece that will solve the puzzle—like within a computer’s hard drive.

Forensic science specialists invited to the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently completed a guide for law enforcement officers titled Electronic Crime Scene Investigation: A Guide for First Responders. The booklet provides investigators who regularly are the first to arrive at a crime scene (known as “first responders”) with an overview of what kinds of electronic evidence may be available to them in devices ranging from large computers to pagers.

When people began using computers to directly commit criminal offenses—such as online fraud and hacking—specialized police groups were trained to evaluate a crime scene and preserve electronic evidence. However, the ever increasing involvement of computers in other crimes (for example, a stalker sending harassing e-mails or an illegal business storing data in a spreadsheet program) means that this expertise no longer can be limited to select teams. Therefore, NIST’s Office of Law Enforcement Standards—with sponsorship by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice—produced the new electronic crime scene guide.

NIJ recently published the NIST guide in both ASCII and Adobe Acrobat downloadable formats at the following web address:

Media Contact:
Philip Bulman,  (301) 975-5661


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Science Friction: Lubricants for Minuscule Machines

People say that water and oil don’t mix. They can, however, co-exist as two separate molecules on the same surface. And therein lie both opportunities and challenges for National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers who are aiding industry efforts to develop surface protecting and lubricating films that will shield super-small machines and their even tinier components from friction and wear.

Ultrathin lubricants or single-layer films will be needed for the minuscule nanotechnology gadgetry to come, from dust-sized environmental sensors to machines for repairing damaged cells. Today’s lubrication systems—such as the fluorocarbon compounds and carbon overcoats used on magnetic disk drives—may not be adequate to meet the demanding performance requirements envisioned for nanotechnology applications.

With collaborators from the data-storage and lubricant industries, the NIST team is exploring the lubricating potential of a mixed-molecule, single-layer film. They are testing novel combinations of up to four different molecules, each one chosen to achieve desired capabilities, from wear resistance to self-repair. In one combination, for example, a particular group of molecules adheres tightly to the surface, anchoring the film and protecting against high-shear collisions. Other molecules “swim” among the anchors to prevent friction.

The NIST team is developing test methods to evaluate new materials and new combinations of materials being considered as lubricants.

An overview of this project (in Adobe Acrobate format) can be found at

Media Contact:
Mark Bello, (301) 975-3776Up


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Space Exploration

NIST ‘Microhotplate’ May Help Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Astronauts or unmanned space vehicles may one day detect and quantitate the gases found on other planets using tiny chemical sensors—each measuring about 100 microns, approaching the width of a human hair—based on a design developed at NIST.

NIST researchers are collaborating with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to adapt NIST’s “microhotplate” technology for use in space applications, such as detecting biogenic (produced by living organisms) gases in planetary atmospheres, investigating organic materials on comets for studies of the history of the universe, or monitoring air quality in habitats. This advanced measurement system already has proven applicable to environmental monitoring and military operations.

A microhotplate is a tiny machined structure consisting of a heater, a metal thermometer/heat distribution plate and electrical contacts, all separated by insulating layers. Sensing films are deposited on the structures. The device relies on changes in electrical conductance in the sensing film to detect the presence of adsorbed gases. Temperature changes may be used to create response “fingerprints” for different gases. Gas mixtures can be analyzed with sensor arrays of multiple microhotplate devices.

Advantages of a microhotplate for use in space include its small size, light weight, and low power and maintenance requirements. It has the potential to provide almost instant chemical analysis or collect samples over time to detect small amounts of gases.

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


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Law Enforcement

Public Defenders Get Better Defense Against Stabbings

Thousands of corrections and law enforcement officers are safer from stabbing attacks these days because of a new standard developed by NIST’s Office of Law Enforcement Standards.

Many nations with strict gun control laws, including the United Kingdom, view stabbing as a much more common threat to law enforcement officers than shooting. In this country, it is the greater threat to people who work in prisons and jails, where guns are unavailable and stabbing attacks involving improvised knives often occur. NIST researchers worked with the U.K.’s Police Scientific Development Branch to develop ways to test the effectiveness of specially designed vests that protect against stabbing attacks. These “stab-resistant vests” are similar to ballistic-resistant body armor (commonly, but incorrectly, called “bullet-proof vests”). Researchers have found that ballistics-resistant vests do not necessarily provide adequate protection against knife attacks.

The National Institute of Justice, an agency of the Department of Justice, sponsored the NIST research that led to the stab-resistant body armor standard. Since the standard was released in September 2000, state, county and local law enforcement and corrections agencies have purchased about 24,000 stab-resistant vests with their own and supplemental funding from the Justice Department’s Vest Partnership Program.

The performance standard for stab-resistant vests complements the ballistic-resistant body armor standard that NIST previously developed for NIJ. It’s estimated that the standard has helped save the lives of more than 2,500 law enforcement officers since 1975, when vests meeting its criteria were first issued to 5,000 officers in 15 major cities.

Media Contact:
Philip Bulman,  (301) 975-5661Up


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Tech Trivia

During the late 1970s, NIST experts on high-pressure physics designed a device to sample microorganisms from ocean depths up to 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). In its first trials, the deep-ocean sampler—which had to withstand pressures nearly 1,000 times greater than at the surface—brought up species of live bacteria from the Puerto Rico Trench that were previously unknown or rarely seen.

Two University of California at Irvine researchers first proposed in the mid-1970s that chlorofluorocarbons— found in refrigerants and aerosol sprays—might absorb ultraviolet light and release atomic chlorine that could deplete the Earth’s protective ozone layer. A team of NIST and Argonne National Laboratory physicists was among the first to detail how this process could occur and provide scientific support for the ozone-breakdown theory.

Two teams of NIST scientists, working independently of each other, both identified a completely new class of chemical compounds in 1977 while researching the components of smog. The dioxirane molecule, they learned, was the product of a low-temperature reaction of ozone with ethylene. It eventually decomposes to form hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

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Editor: Michael E. Newman

Date created: 10/24/01
Last updated: 11/16/01