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Safety and Security

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The division’s work in the Safety and Security Program Area provides the underpinning measurement science needed to advance threat detection, improve the accuracy of critical measurements and ensure the reliability of protective technologies and materials; the work falls generally into three categories: (1) improving national security, (2) enhancing public safety, and (3) advancing personal protection for law enforcement and first responders. There are many synergies and cross-cutting capabilities that the division leverages to maximize impact in these three categories, including multiscale, multi-domain hybrid metrology research, measurement standards and services, and trace analysis metrology research and development to enable the production and dissemination of standards, protocols, and test methods to meet persistent and evolving critical national needs identified through coordination with industry and government stakeholders.


A variety of both established and innovative measurement methods are utilized to facilitate the protection of the public in multiple arenas. For example, specialized thermal, rheological, and imaging measurements are developed to quantify material properties and performance under high strain rate conditions. These have been critical in understanding and improving the performance of protective materials and have become the basis for developing test procedures, best practice guides, data sets and documentary standards. Further, innovative technology and reference artifact development have been key for improving confidence in threat detection and through barrier detection protocols. Research on the collection, detection and identification of trace amounts of potentially dangerous materials (e.g., explosives, narcotics, toxic substances) is enabled by state-of-the-art instruments and methods for characterizing the chemical and physical properties of contraband material. These include optical, electron, and ion microscopies, ambient ionization and conventional mass spectrometry, and visualization techniques to study the movement of gases and particles. The division has also pioneered the use of highly reproducible deposition methods to create test materials for trace detection technology development and quality control processes.

Improving our National Security

  • Trace Contraband and Threat Detection — Screening for and detection of trace quantities of potentially harmful or illicit materials is a key component to maintaining national security. The division has applied its expertise in microscopy and spectroscopy to investigate the properties of particles and other residues found on surfaces associated with the handling and transport of contraband material and have used this information to make operational improvement recommendations for efficient collection of material for subsequent analysis. Further, a variety of visualization methods are used to study the movement of vapors and aerosol particles and track the spread of contamination and aid in optimizing residue collection efficiencies. The division is a world-leader in the use of inkjet printing to prepare test materials that mimic trace particulate residues that can be used for internal research and distributed externally to the trace detection community. A key research area is evaluating and developing next-generation trace detection technologies with an emphasis on mass spectrometric methods that exploit ambient ionization to detect trace residues directly from substrates, thereby eliminating the need for complex and time-consuming sample preparation and separation methods. The division has also authored documentary standards that help the trace detection community estimate practical and statistically robust limits of detection and a standard practice for measuring and scoring the performance of trace chemical detectors.

  • Through-Barrier Sensing and Imaging — The division works to develop documentary standards, including performance requirements, test methods, and test objects to support the use, deployment, and advancement of technology used in the sensing and imaging of concealed threat objects. The division works with the user community to define equipment operational requirements for specific detection technologies and translates these requirements to realistic and measurable performance requirements through targeted research and development. This collaborative environment, built and supported by the division, has allows efficient translation of baseline performance requirements, test methods, and test objects into international documentary standards. This is not a static process as the threats vary with scenario, application, time or threat-detection technology advancements. Consequently, the division continues to engage the community to update standards, methods, and test objects as needed to keep pace with advances in threats or technologies.

Enhancing Public Safety

  • Point-of-Care Pharmaceutical Manufacturing & Precision Medicine — The division is leveraging its expertise in precision deposition methods and small molecule chemical analysis to support the nascent point-of-care (POC) manufacturing and personalized medicine delivery communities. Advancements in manufacturing technologies can aid the move from few rigid centralized manufacturing facilities toward many agile distributed manufacturing system. MMSD and NIST are developing the POC pharmaceutical manufacturing measurement science foundation, control strategies, and uncertainty analysis to support the production equipment and process analytical technology industries, as well as regulatory and other interested agencies.

  • Rapid Drug Analysis and Research — The public health crisis brought on by the catastrophic increase in opioid abuse and overdoses necessitated the immediate need for a program to help public health officials respond rapidly to ever-changing drug supplies in local communities. With its long running research efforts in novel trace narcotics detection methods for forensic applications, the division in collaboration with the Maryland Department of Health was able to quickly initiate a program that utilizes its expertise in ambient ionization mass spectrometry and data analysis tools to analyze samples collected from drug paraphernalia sampled at harm reduction clinics in 22 counties in Maryland. Samples are processed and analyzed in less than 48 hours and the results, containing information identifying the different drugs and adulterants found in each sample, are made available to the Maryland Department of Health for dissemination to local communities. This rapid response allows communities to understand their local drug supply and respond to changes in almost real-time. This successful pilot program is now being expanded to several other states with the goal of establishing a national program run by the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

  • Blunt Trauma and Concussion Prevention — Concussions and injury from blunt impact remain a concern for both law enforcement officers and athletes. While significant research has been devoted to understanding the biomechanics, injury risk of on-field impacts and system level equipment testing, protective material design continues to lag. The division recognized this critical gap and has worked to develop a data resource for protective materials. This data resource incorporates processing-structure information, in-situ metrologies for full-field strain measurement, and visco-elastic property measurements to build publicly available experimental data for material response to quasi-static and medium rate impacts. This open-source asset allows users to add data, validate modeling or explore novel design strategies. While the current focus is on commercially relevant foam materials, collaborations with stakeholders will open the materials space to novel energy dissipating strategies relevant to dynamic bond chemistry, additive manufacturing and liquid crystal elastomers. The division’s efforts will help facilitate stakeholder consensus that is needed to define the documentary standards for advanced protective materials.

  • High-Speed Visualization for Pandemic Awareness — Immediately following the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic the division applied its expertise in visualization of vapor movement to create a public service announcement stressing the importance of wearing a face covering to help prevent the spread of the virus. The rapid dissemination of this video content through multiple social media outlets provided the nation with a reliable, unbiased source of information regarding the use of face coverings. The exposure generated by this public service announcement led to a collaboration with U.S. Health and Human Services Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, where the division provided technical evaluation of novel mask designs submitted as part of a national Mask Innovation Challenge.

  • Standards and Reference Materials for Nanomedicine — Working with key stakeholders, we develop consensus measurement standards and reference artifacts that address regulatory and industrial needs for the pre-clinical advancement of emerging nanotechnology-based therapeutic agents.

Advancing Personal Protection for Law Enforcement and First Responders

  • Ballistic and Stab Resistant Body Armor Research — In partnership with critical stakeholders such as law enforcement practitioners, testing laboratories and manufacturers, we advance measurements, standards and test methods for protective equipment such as body armor. This work includes fundamental research to understand the impact of aging and structure-property performance in protective materials and to advance test methods as armor materials and designs evolve. Further, this work addresses measurement gaps in witness materials (e.g., clays and foams) that underpin ballistic and stab resistant body armor test methods.

  • Riot Gear Evaluation — Responding to concerns from law enforcement end users who desire that their protective equipment provide adequate protection from spikes, nails, screws, and other pointed threats, the division investigated the penetration resistance of materials commonly used in riot helmet shells. The effort considered what potential threats were most penetrative and what standardized threats might be used as a reliable surrogate during standardized testing. The research results were used to develop the helmet shell penetration resistance test for the ASTM suite of test methods for nonballistic-resistant helmets for law enforcement and corrections, which was published in 2022.

Created April 5, 2023, Updated December 13, 2023