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Mass, Force and Acceleration

NIST researchers are developing novel chip-scale instruments that enable light-based measurements of mass, force and acceleration with unprecedented accuracy.

A copper-colored metal device stands on cylindrical legs.
Credit: J.L. Lee/NIST
Close-up of the front of an electrostatic force balance, a technology for accurately measuring small masses.

Dozens of critical applications in industry, medicine and defense depend on increasingly sensitive measurements of very small mass, force and acceleration. NIST is responding to that need by creating a new generation of micro-scale sensors that can make those measurements using light — and the physical quantity that can be determined most exactly, frequency.

Already, NIST sensor prototypes are capable of accurately measuring forces less than 1 nanonewton by gauging how the pressure of faint laser light displaces a tiny cantilever. Another device that uses photonic means to track the motion of a very small mass suspended within an enclosure can measure acceleration as small as 10-7 meters per second over a period of one second with uncertainties of 1 part in 1,000 or better. 

These emerging technologies are highly sensitive, are miniaturized for easy integration into existing devices, and, in many cases, can automatically adjust their readings for higher accuracy. Some are thinner than a penny and can self-calibrate or nearly so. They are expected to be cost-effective for manufacturing, which would encourage commercialization. Because of their small size, they could be readily embedded into manufactured devices to provide built-in reference measurements. 

Click on the boxes below to explore the technology in more detail. 

Optomechanical AccelerometersMeasuring Small Masses and Forces

Created November 22, 2019, Updated July 1, 2020