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

June 1998

  Tech Beat

In This Issue:

blueball.gif - 0.93 KCops and Docs Find Evidence in the Other DNA
blueball.gif - 0.93 KLess Shaking and Rattling on the Road
blueball.gif - 0.93 K'Catching the Wave' May Lead to More Solid Foundations
blueball.gif - 0.93 KChemists Help Achieve 'Artificial Photosynthesis'
blueball.gif - 0.93 KWheelchair Company Rockets to Success with Center's Help
blueball.gif - 0.93 KWhen at First You Don't Succeed, Try Again
blueball.gif - 0.93 KTech Trivia

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

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Cops and Docs Find Evidence in the Other DNA

Results of the recent investigation to identify remains removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery likely will hinge on DNA, but not DNA from the nucleus of a cell. Rather, investigators are looking at circular DNA found in the mitochondria, a tiny structure that converts nutrients into energy for a cell. Mitochondrial DNA, inherited maternally, can remain intact long after nuclear DNA has degraded. Crime labs are beginning to use it to crack cold cases, and medical researchers have linked mutations in mitochondrial DNA with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, neuromuscular diseases and blindness.

As interest peaks in mitochondrial DNA, so has the need for a standard to assure accuracy in sequencing mitochondrial DNA. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are working on a Standard Reference Material for human mitochondrial DNA. The new standard will include thoroughly characterized mitochondrial DNA from two cell lines. Labs will use it to determine whether their methods and results are accurate. Also included will be information on 58 primer sets that labs can use to amplify specific portions of or the entire human mitochondrial DNA. When issued, the new mitochondrial DNA standard will be the third created by NIST to ensure accuracy in DNA typing.

Media Contact:
Linda Joy (301) 975-4403

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Less Shaking and Rattling on the Road

Consumers taking the wheel of a growing number of American cars and light trucks are getting a little something extra around the edges these days. The vehicle parts fit together better, resulting in pleasing amenities like minimal water leakage, a quiet ride, well-fitting trim, and reduced corrosion and wear. And it's all expected to translate into reduced maintenance costs.

The improved "fit and finish" is due to a precision assembly process developed jointly by tooling suppliers, engineering service companies, automotive engineers, assembly line operators and academic researchers in a project co-funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program. The project overcame a number of long-standing challenges in vehicle assembly to reduce dimensional variations from as much as 5 or 6 millimeters (0.2 or 0.24 inch) to 2 millimeters (0.08 inch), the world-class target of the early 1990s.

The results were implemented initially at five auto plants and now are being transferred to additional plants run by U.S. car makers. Among the economic benefits to the nation, consumers and car makers are expected to share up to $650 million in annual savings on maintenance, according to an economic analysis performed by CONSAD Research Corp. of Pittsburgh and funded by NIST.

Media Contact:
Michael Baum (301) 975-2763

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Earthquake Research

'Catching the Wave' May Lead to More Solid Foundations

It may look like "terra firma" to the naked eye, but the true integrity of loosely deposited granular soils can be deceiving. Just ask the folks in San Francisco, Mexico City and Kobe, Japan, where major earthquakes in recent years instantly transformed solid ground into quicksand-like, lethal-to-structures soups--a process called liquefaction.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Texas at Austin are making significant improvements to the method used for predicting soil liquefaction in earthquake-prone areas. Their measurement tool--known as the spectral-analysis-of-surface-waves test--uses a truck-mounted vibrator to shoot waves of different frequencies through the soil and two or more motion sensors to record the speed of the waves generated. From the recordings and subsequent computer modeling, estimates of the varying soil strengths in the area are derived. These are compared with data from sites that have and have not liquefied during earthquakes. The resulting profile reveals where the soil is dangerously susceptible to liquefaction.

The SASW test's major advantage is that it does not require drilling holes to do subsurface measurements, making it quick, portable, usable in hard-to-sample or sensitive areas, and cost effective. It already has been employed at two construction sites--in Taiwan and Charleston, S.C.--to evaluate the effectiveness of techniques used to prevent potential earthquake liquefaction damage.

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

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Chemists Help Achieve 'Artificial Photosynthesis'

Plants do it all the time. But for chemists, the task of converting carbon dioxide into something useful has been much more challenging. Now chemists working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Howard University have successfully mastered a tricky chemical reaction that mimics the basic plant process known as photosynthesis. The accomplishment is a preliminary step toward technologies that would remove carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere with the help of solar energy and transform it into organic compounds, perhaps even fuels.

A number of researchers have been working for over a decade to reduce carbon dioxide using substances called catalysts that can spur carbon dioxide molecules to react with other molecules. The team of researchers from Brookhaven, NIST and Howard looked to nature for inspiration. They chose a class of catalysts that contain iron and cobalt, similar in structure to a molecule that helps plants photosynthesize. Called metalloporphyrins, the catalysts become chemically active when they absorb light, allowing them to grab carbon dioxide molecules and make a chemical reaction possible. While the scientists plan further study of these reactions, they have confirmed that carbon dioxide molecules were converted into other molecules, including organic materials.

Media Contact:
Linda Joy (301) 975-4403

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Wheelchair Company Rockets to Success with Center's Help

Turns out to make a great wheelchair, you do need to be a rocket scientist. Tom Kruse, founder and chief executive officer of Hoveround Corp., Sarasota, Fla., wanted to add a quicker, stronger, snugger wheelchair to his product line. Kruse asked the Suncoast Manufacturing Technology Center, an affiliate of the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership, for design and engineering help. Working with experts from the Suncoast center, NASA and the Southern Technology Applications Center, Hoveround improved its computer-aided-design capabilities and developed a more durable, more comfortable and more affordable wheelchair.

So, how's business with the new, high-tech product? To meet the growing demand, Hoveround moved from a 743-square-meter (8,000-square-foot) facility to one more than five times as large and increased its workforce from 25 employees in 1995 to its current level of 180. In just one year, revenues at Hoveround rocketed from $15 million to $25 million.

With a nationwide network of over 2,000 manufacturing experts, MEP is helping small and mid-sized manufacturers improve productivity, increase profits and enhance competitiveness. Smaller manufacturers can call (800) MEP-4MFG (637-4634) to reach the MEP center that serves them.

Information on MEP and its network also can found on the World Wide Web at

Media Contact:
Jan Kosko (301) 975-2767
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When at First You Don't Succeed, Try Again

In a fascinating new video aimed at elementary and middle school students, astronaut Greg Linteris talks about his experiences in space and some of the experiments he did while on the space shuttle. Linteris, a fire and combustion scientist in the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, flew on two orbital missions last year.

The 90-minute video, "Engineer in Space," includes superb footage of the astronauts working inside the spacecraft as well as a series of breathtaking slides of what Earth looks like from 272 kilometers (170 miles) high.

Linteris' first trip into orbit, in April 1997 aboard the space shuttle Columbia, was cut short after only four days because of a fuel cell problem. He had been scheduled to conduct combustion experiments in the shuttle's microgravity laboratory that could someday help create better engines for automobiles as well as prevent fires in the future international space station. Luckily, Linteris and the entire crew got a second chance. NASA rescheduled the flight for July 1997, and this time, Columbia and its seven astronauts completed a successful 16-day mission.

To request a free copy, write to Public Inquiries, A903 Administration, NIST, Gaithersburg, Md. 20899-0001, fax a request to (301) 926-1630 or send an e-mail message to

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

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Tech Trivia

In June 1960, Secretary of Commerce Frederick Mueller presented a set of official U.S. measurement standards to legislative and business representatives from the brand-new state of Hawaii in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Hawaii received a yard bar, a 100-foot measuring tape, capacity standards ranging from 5 gallons to 2 ounces, and mass standards ranging from 30 pounds to one millionth of a pound.

Metallurgists at the National Bureau of Standards tested metal alloys used in giant air ship frames in the 1920s and 1930s. Finding that metal fatigue was found in the frames of crashed dirigibles, NBS scientists recommended coating the frames with aluminum. However, the fiery crash of the Hindenburg ended the golden age of airships in 1937.

Does anybody really know what time it is? Yes! More than 3 million times per day people around the world check atomic time at NIST via the Internet. You can check the time on the NIST Web Clock at the following address: You can also download software for synchronizing your computer's clock from this page.


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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: June 24, 1998


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