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Science and Technology Sampler: NIST Highlights from 2013

Milestones on the way to quantum computing. A landmark study of how communities can better prepare for tornadoes. Publication of a draft cybersecurity framework for the nation. Evidence of a potentially new class of solids. New programs to promote and support innovation in manufacturing.

These are a few of the many and varied accomplishments and contributions arising from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2013.

Over the past year, NIST also contributed its measurement expertise and technology know-how to detecting chemical agents and hidden explosives; building new forensic science labs; storing nuclear waste; standardizing energy-usage information in a consumer-friendly format; devising a new, compact type of portable atomic clock; developing image-quality standards for luggage-screening systems used in airports; and even helping a promising new malaria vaccine advance in clinical trials.

Whole genome candidate reference material
Whole genome candidate NIST reference material. This DNA sample and accompanying characterization information will be available in early 2014 through the Office of Reference Materials for laboratories to evaluate their sequencing methods.
New partnerships also were forged in 2013. Fifteen major companies formally established partnerships with the NIST-hosted National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence. NIST joined with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to initiate a national Center for Advanced Communications, devoted to furthering U.S. leadership in wireless broadband technologies. And it piloted its first DNA reference materials in support of the young Genome in a Bottle Consortium, a NIST-led collaboration working on measurement tools to ensure the accuracy gene-sequencing analyses.

Chosen to convey the diversity of NIST's measurement-focused projects and programs, here's a sampling of 10 highlights from the agency's 112th year as a federal research laboratory.

The Better to See You With: Scientists Build Record-Setting Metamaterial Flat Lens

uv light projection
A NIST team has created a metamaterial that has an angle-independent negative refractive index, enabling it to act as a flat lens. When illuminated with ultraviolet light (purple), a sample object placed on the flat slab of metamaterial is projected as a 3-D image in free space on the other side of the slab. Here a ring-shaped opening in an opaque sheet on the left of the slab is replicated in light on the right.

Scientists at NIST demonstrated a new type of lens that bends and focuses ultraviolet light in such an unusual way that it can create ghostly, 3D images of objects that float in free space. Unlike typical curved lenses, the new lens is made from a flat slab of metamaterial with special characteristics that cause light to flow backward—a counterintuitive situation in which waves and energy travel in opposite directions, creating a negative refractive index. The easy-to-build lens could lead to improved photolithography, nanoscale manipulation and manufacturing, and even high-resolution three-dimensional imaging, as well as as-yet-unimagined applications in a diverse range of fields. The achievement was called "a technological tour de force" by Sir John Pendry, an English physicist whose research revived interest in so-called perfect lenses, a decades-old idea once dismissed as fantasy.

Progress toward Quantum Computers

NIST continued to rack up important "firsts" in the quest to gain mastery over the odd, counterintuitive realm of quantum mechanics, with the ultimate aim of building revolutionary types of information processing systems. Recognized with four Nobel Prizes in Physics over the last 15 years, NIST research is at the leading edge of the international pursuit to manipulate and control quantum properties and phenomena for application in future memory, communication, and computing technologies. NIST quantum accomplishments in 2013 include:

•  Suggesting that quantum computers might benefit from losing some data, NIST physicists have entangled—linked the quantum properties of—two ions by leaking judiciously chosen information to the environment.

•  Extending evidence of quantum behavior farther into the large-scale world of everyday life, NIST physicists have "entangled" a microscopic mechanical drum with electrical signals. The results confirm that NIST's micro-drum could be used as a quantum memory in future quantum computers.

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Released December 17, 2013, Updated July 24, 2018