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July 9, 2003

  In This Issue:
bullet Ultracold Experiments Pave Way for Super Molecule
bullet NIST Assists Hollywood With Digital Cinema Study
bullet System Helps Ensure Reliability Of Military Communications
bullet Tiny Bubbles: New Tool in Chemical Sensing?
bullet Dot, Dot, Dot . . . How Quantum Dots Line Up
bullet Grants to Fund Development Of Novel Technologies
bullet Quick Links

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Editor’s Note: With this issue, we combine under one title two NIST newsletters, NIST Update and NIST TechBeat. We’ve made the change to help improve the timeliness of our topics. Our goal is to include newsworthy topics tied to publication of peer-reviewed papers, conference presentations, and other timely “news hooks” as often as possible. We also will be including photos and graphics whenever possible.
We hope you like the new look! Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.

Gail Porter,
NIST TechBeat Editor
(301) 975-3392

Researcher holding lab book, next to laboratory equipment-Copyright Geoffrey Wheeler
copyright© Geoffrey Wheeler

Physicist Deborah Jin and colleagues at JILA have reported an important step toward creating a “super molecule,” a blend of thousands of molecules acting in unison.

To receive a high-resolution version of this image, contact Gail Porter.


Ultracold Experiments Pave Way for Super Molecule

A team of researchers at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, report in the July 3 edition of Nature an important step toward creating an ultracold “super molecule,” a blend of thousands of molecules acting in unison. Such a blend of molecules would provide physicists with an excellent tool for studying molecular quantum mechanics and superconductivity.

At a temperature of only 150 nanoKelvin above absolute zero, the team used lasers and a carefully tuned magnetic field to pair potassium atoms belonging to a class of particles called fermions into loosely joined molecules belonging to a class of particles called bosons. Surprisingly, the researchers report the number of molecules produced is very large with about a quarter million (50 percent) of the atoms within the original cloud pairing up.

"Our experiments," notes NIST Physicist Deborah Jin, "produced the lowest molecular binding energy that has been measured spectroscopically."” In other words, the atom pairs forming each molecule are hanging onto one another by their proverbial fingertips. The researchers measured the energy holding the molecules together by breaking the molecular bond with a relatively low-energy radio wave.

"This work," Jin continues, "could help us understand the basic physics behind superconductivity and especially high-temperature superconductivity." Superconductivity is a property in which electrons (a fermion particle) move through a metal with no resistance. The experiments may lead to creation of fermion superfluids made from gases that would be much easier to study than solid superconductors. Creation of a "super atom" (known as a Bose-Einstein condensate) earned another research team at JILA the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics.

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



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NIST Assists Hollywood With Digital Cinema Study

When “Finding Nemo,” Disney/Pixar’s animated blockbuster opened recently, only patrons in a few select theaters worldwide could see it in its native format, ones and zeros. The movie’s computer animation was created with digital technology, but the vast majority of theaters are showing it on film because they don't have digital projectors.

As more films like “Nemo” are created, however, the technological tide may be turning. Just as DVDs enable the display of sharper images than videotapes, digital cinema should make it possible to project sharper, brighter pictures than film. But are digital images really better than film images?

To help clarify the situation, scientists and engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are helping the film industry to measure the quality of images on the screen. NIST is working with Digital Cinema Initiatives LLC (DCI), a consortium of film studios that is creating a test bed to measure and evaluate the performance of digital cinema systems, including projectors. DCI plans to look at the results of human evaluation and of scientific measurements to evaluate image quality. NIST is providing technical expertise for the project via test patterns and procedures that measure brightness, contrast, resolution and other variables that influence image quality.

The results could have implications for other fields, such as high-resolution satellite imagery and telemedicine, where the quality of X-rays and other images is critically important.

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


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System Helps Ensure Reliability Of Military Communications

The Army, Navy and Air Force use thousands of miles of optical fibers on ships, planes and land-based installations to transmit voice and data. They needed a simple, effective and highly accurate way to measure the amount of light delivered by these glass “wires” at key points in the transmission system. Power degradation along the network can cause communication failure.

Working with ILX Lightwave Corp. of Bozeman, Mont., the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) came up with a system capable of world-class optical measurements with push-button convenience. The system consists of a NIST-designed optical detector and an optical multimeter—designed by ILX Lightwave—that measures light emitted from a fiber over a wide range of wavelengths. There are two versions of the novel detector—one using silicon-based sensors and the other using germanium-based sensors. The sensors connect directly to an optical fiber without any additional optics and with barely measurable light loss. Measurement uncertainty is half that of previous optical fiber power detectors. The system is described in an upcoming issue of the journal Metrologia.

According to NIST engineer John Lehman, independent measurements of the detector’s performance by NIST and its German counterpart, PTB (Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt), are in “excellent agreement.” Another comparison will be made this summer with NIST’s British counterpart, the National Physical Laboratory.

The new systems are now being shipped to military calibration centers where they will be used to annually check the accuracy of optical fiber power systems utilized in the field.

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


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Tiny Bubbles: New Tool in Chemical Sensing?

As the old Hawaiian love song says, tiny bubbles really do make some people feel fine. Chemists, that is. But there is no wine involved this time, just water.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) chemists reported in the June 24 online edition of Langmuir that a process called microboiling shows promise for quick, simple and inexpensive chemical sensing. The process involves the formation of tiny vapor bubbles on a 200-nanometer-thick film of precious metal immersed in water and heated rapidly. By coating the metal microheater with a single layer of water-repelling molecules, the scientists dramatically altered the microboiling behavior. Bubbles formed more obviously and at lower temperatures, and the water in immediate contact with the metal got much hotter.

"It's astounding to me that we changed one functional group on the surface of that microheater and saw a dramatic change in the boiling behavior," says Michael Tarlov, a co-author of the paper.

The finding means that changes in boiling behavior should be useful for detecting specific substances. The water surrounding a microheater designed to bond with DNA or proteins, for example, might boil at a different temperature if the target molecules were attached to the coating. A change can be measured in just 5 microseconds, much faster than typical lab techniques. NIST scientists have found that the technique can detect surfactants, such as those used in detergents, and are studying its use in microfluidic (or lab-on-a-chip) devices. The research also has other potential spin-offs, such as the use of designer coatings to improve efficiency in boilers and heat exchangers and the use of microheaters to simplify chemical manufacturing.

Media Contact:
Laura Ost,  (301) 975-4034



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Dot, Dot, Dot . . . How Quantum Dots Line Up

A method that can be used to predict the growth of earthquake faults also aids prediction of the tiniest of phenomena—how arrays of “artificial atoms,” or quantum dots, assemble and stack themselves on semiconductor materials, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers report in the July 15 issue of Physical Review B.

The insight could aid development of more reliable methods for fabricating lasers, sensors and other devices that exploit quantum dots’ special electronic properties—the result of confining electrons in the space of a few nanometers. The minuscule structures already are the basis for some lasers. Yet, difficulties in making quantum dots of uniform size and precisely positioning them on a substrate remain formidable. These obstacles stand in the way of an array of faster, more powerful electronic and photonic devices that require only small inputs of energy to spring into action.

NIST’s Bo Yang and Vinod Tewary borrowed a mathematical concept that explains how cracks grow in a solid, such as the Earth’s crust or an airplane wing. The concept, called the elastic energy release rate, accounts for how energy is apportioned as a crack advances. The scientists found that the rate also accounts for how self-assembling quantum dots, which strain the system’s lattice-like atomic geometry, will position and align themselves among their neighbors—those next door and those living below. For cube-shaped quantum dots, at least, the equation predicts the most “energetically favorable” location for a quantum dot. The NIST pair says their theory can be used, for example, to predict the optimal depth for embedding quantum dots that will be overlain by another array of dots.

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


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Grants to Fund Development Of Novel Technologies

New blade technology that could make energy generation by wind turbines more efficient, virus-resistant tissues for skin grafts, a method for operating a car’s devices through conversational speech, and an automated Web-searching and data organizing software system are among the novel technologies to be developed by the private sector with support from 16 awards announced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Advanced Technology Program (ATP).

A list of the latest ATP awards with links to project fact sheets may be found at For more detail on individual projects, contact the recipient company or joint venture partnership as listed at the bottom of the project fact sheet.

For background information on the ATP, including history, statistics, program evaluations, success stories and descriptions of previous awards, go to

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


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Quick Links

Securing Federal Information Systems: NIST has released the second public draft of its Guide for the Security Certification and Accreditation of Federal Information Systems, a set of procedures designed to help federal agencies ensure that the nation’s critical information infrastructure is well protected. The new draft incorporates changes based on feedback from the public and private sectors, as well as changes related to the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002. The new draft is at

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Editor: Gail Porter

Date created: 07/08/2003