A capsule newsletter of science and technology news briefs from NIST written for general audiences; published monthly

May 1998

  Tech Beat

In This Issue:

blueball.gif - 0.93 KTiny Bubbles May Be Key to Future Electronics
blueball.gif - 0.93 KNIST Helps Slice Year 2000 Problems Down to Size
blueball.gif - 0.93 KNanowired! NIST Makes New Nanostructures
blueball.gif - 0.93 KNIST Helps Wring Water Out of Walls Before They're Built
blueball.gif - 0.93 KNew Testbed Aims to Be Dimensionally Correct
blueball.gif - 0.93 KNew NIST Video Shows Hot Research on Cold Atoms
blueball.gif - 0.93 KTech Trivia

[Credits] [NIST Tech Beat Archives] [Media Contacts] [Subscription Information]

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Tiny Bubbles May Be Key to Future Electronics

The astounding cornucopia of electronic devices introduced over the past few years--from wonderfully complex toys to powerful home computers--owes much to industry's relentless push to make integrated circuits ever smaller. But physics eventually imposes limits. What's needed, say researchers at Texas Instruments of Dallas, is a better integrated circuit wire insulator.

As part of an Advanced Technology Program project, co-funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, TI researchers teamed with NanoPore Inc., a small New Mexico company, to learn how to make integrated circuits with a novel insulator made of a glassy material suffused with microscopic bubbles. "Xerogel" is mostly air, nature's ideal insulator, trapped in billions of tiny pores, so it has the same, nearly ideal, insulating properties. It's so effective that it could insulate a future computer chip with a mile of wire crammed into a space the size of a fingernail, according to TI.

TI recently combined xerogel technology with a new technique for replacing conventional aluminum wires in integrated circuits with copper, a better conductor. The result: a breakthrough microchip manufacturing technology that could mean a tenfold increase in microprocessor speed and vastly more powerful computers, cellular telephones, factory control systems and other products.

Media Contact:
Michael Baum (301) 975-2763

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NIST Helps Slice Year 2000 Problems Down to Size

If you're looking for a handful of needles in a haystack it can really help to know where not to look. That's the basic idea behind a set of algorithms developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology that have recently been incorporated into a commercial software product made by Blair and Associates Inc. of Hanover, Md. The new product, called the BAI Slicer, is designed to help computer programmers find "Year 2000" problems in programs written in the C language.

Programs written in C--like those for controlling an automatic teller machine or a piece of manufacturing equipment--can contain tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of lines of computer instructions. The NIST algorithm can be used to figure out which of these many lines of instructions are not related directly or indirectly to a specific function like the current date. In practice, this allows programmers to safely ignore up to 90 percent of a computer program and concentrate on the 10 percent that may contain commands that need changing to conform to four-digit year dates after the year 2000.

Media Contact:
Anne Enright Shepherd

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Nanowired! NIST Makes New Nanostructures

The quest for smaller structures for microelectronic and data storage devices has scientists pushing the limits of current manufacturing techniques and searching for new ways to make even smaller devices. Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have demonstrated a technique to make nanowires about one-thousandth of the diameter of a human hair. While these are not smaller than features that other new methods emerging from research labs can produce today, the method of creating them offers advantages over current techniques.

Building on earlier work, NIST scientists etched the nanowires from rows of tiny chromium lines. Using a NIST-developed method called "atom optics," researchers focused chromium atoms through a laser to form rows whose spacings correspond exactly to the wavelength of the laser light. Now, placing the rows in a vacuum with plasma gas, the scientists etched through the chromium, leaving fine wires between trenches in the silicon surface. The same technique could be used to make wires from other metals. Its biggest advantage is that the combination of laser focusing and plasma etching can cover a relatively large surface with nanowires in a short time.

Media Contact:
Linda Joy

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Building Research

NIST Helps Wring Water Out of Walls Before They're Built

Wet walls can be a homeowner's nightmare. However, MOIST 3.0, a personal computer program from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, can help avoid such problems even before the home has left its blueprints. Builders can use MOIST 3.0 to assess potential moisture accumulation in different types of construction and ceiling materials at various times of the year. The program, an improvement over a previous DOS-based version, features graphics that allow users to construct virtual building assemblies and quickly assess the resulting thermal and moisture performance. It also contains an extensive heat and moisture property database for building materials and hourly weather data for 51 cities within the United States and Canada.

Builders can use MOIST to determine if vapor retarders are needed in cold climates. The program can predict surface relative humidity at the construction layers in hot and humid climates, thereby revealing the potential for mold and mildew growth. It also will help builders determine the drying rates for materials containing original construction moisture. A free copy of MOIST 3.0 can be obtained by downloading the program from http://www.bfrl.nist.gov/863/moist.html or e-mailing a request to moist@nist.gov.

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

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New Testbed Aims to Be Dimensionally Correct

Seeing around corners and through walls is but one of many construction-site capabilities that researchers aim to develop at a new National Institute of Standards and Technology testbed.

"Ultimately, we want to enable automation of construction processes that are dangerous or are manually intensive and error prone," explains NIST scientist William Stone. "We also want to develop the means to provide usable, up-to-date site information to all participants in a project, the owners, architects, designers, fabricators, contractors and workers."

At the National Construction Automation Testbed, NIST and its research partners are refining and integrating the components of a wireless measurement and communications infrastructure. Initial partners include makers of equipment that exploit information gathered by global positioning system satellites, used, for example, to establish the location of machinery or the placement of a steel girder.

Stone and colleagues anticipate supplementing GPS measurements with data captured by on-site instruments, such as the ground-based equivalents of satellites, dubbed pseudolites, as well as advanced laser-based positioning systems. Researchers also are working on a "non-line-of-sight" surveying system that tracks objects obscured by a wall. Site-related data eventually might be presented to construction workers on hardhat-mounted displays.

Media Contact:
Mark Bello (301) 975-3776
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New NIST Video Shows Hot Research on Cold Atoms

Almost Absolute Zero: The Story of Laser Cooling and Trapping of Atoms" comes alive in an exciting video lecture by William D. Phillips, a leading researcher in ultra-low temperature in atomic physics at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Phillips shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics along with Steven Chu of Stanford University and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris, France.

Phillips presented his well-illustrated lecture to more than 1,000 people at NIST who braved a snowstorm on Jan. 24, 1998, to hear him speak. In this lecture, Phillips describes the work the trio did independently on the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. In the video, Phillips covers many of the milestones that enabled scientists to cool atoms to within a few nanokelvins of absolute zero.

This 73-minute video lecture is an excellent resource for high school and college physics courses and is available free of charge from NIST. Send a fax to (301) 926-1630 to reserve your copy.

Media Contact:
Linda Joy

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Tech Trivia

In August 1959, scientists from the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) helped preserve historical documents, including photographs, newspaper articles and construction records, which were sealed in the cornerstone of the east front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

In 1922, National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) scientists demonstrated the first radio receiver that could be plugged into an ordinary household electrical outlet. Based on a simple crystal detector set, the NBS work fueled a national craze for home radios. By 1923, such a large number and variety of sets were being built that NBS called for immediate standardization of radio apparatus and service.

In 1956, researchers at the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) worked with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to develop a tougher, longer lasting type of paper for money. The NBS Paper Section tested paper for folding endurance, crumbling, air permeability, and resistance to abrasion and soiling.

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U.S. Department of Commerce
Technology Administration
National Institute of Standards and Technology

Editor: Linda Joy
HTML conversion: Crissy Wines

Last update: April 30, 1998


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