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Energy and Environment: Overview

Public support for science dwindled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, perhaps in part because of the financial drain of the Vietnam War and the growing perception that science could not cure many social problems. Scientists, therefore, had to become more active and skilled in convincing funding sources that their research was socially relevant and worthwhile.

Much of NIST's work during this time directly affected the public. At the behest of the Congress, for instance, the Institute undertook a comprehensive study of the metric system and published A Metric America, which recommended a policy of voluntary conversion. President Gerald Ford signed the policy into law in 1975; the U.S. government continues to encourage a voluntary changeover. NIST also prepared an impartial method for the draft lottery of July 1970, influencing which of America's young people would enter military service. Public safety was a driving concern: NIST helped investigate a number of major disasters, from a Texas tornado to a California earthquake, and provided technical support for the new Consumer Product Safety Commission, studying everything from the flammability of sleeping bags to children's capabilities to push, pull, and twist toys in harmful ways.

NIST also applied basic research knowledge to solve practical problems. Research in acoustics, begun years earlier, was applied to non-destructive methods for detecting flaws in materials and structures. In acoustic emissions technology, transient microscopic vibrations of a structure such as a highway bridge are monitored to anticipate the potential failure of critical components. To overcome the difficult challenge of detecting pulses that last only a microsecond, NIST reduced the problem to three essential elements, each of which was then solved. The staff developed a standard acoustic emission source that became widely used, a predictive analytic computer code for wave propagation in materials, and a high-fidelity sensor that accurately measured emissions.

As always, NIST provided calibration services to hundreds of firms, not only doing the work but also showing others how to do it themselves. For instance, an Institute scientist showed a state metrologist how $500 worth of off-the-shelf equipment, coupled with radio signals from NIST radio station WWV, could be used to calibrate the tuning forks needed to check the accuracy of police radar equipment.

Meanwhile, basic research in fields such as physics and surface science enabled NIST to maintain and enhance the technical competence needed to carry out multiple missions and provide the measurement foundation for technological innovation.

NIST research in atomic physics centered around the use of laser light to cool and trap various particles. The first proposal for cooling atomic ions (atoms possessing a net electrical charge) was made in 1975 by scientists including one from NIST, who, concurrently with another team, reported the first successful demonstration of this effect in 1978. By the mid-1980s, two other Institute scientists demonstrated different techniques for cooling, or slowing, atoms (which are neutral and therefore pose different challenges), a prerequisite for trapping them. All of this work was motivated initially by fundamental scientific needs and drives, but, as noted at the time, it was easy to imagine that unforeseen uses might arise. Indeed, this research led to a Nobel Prize in physics for a NIST scientist and a variety of practical applications (see Laser Cooling and Trapping Win Nobel Prize).

Much of NIST's time during this era was taken up with research on energy and environmental problems, largely in response to the oil embargo of 1973 and a batch of environmental legislation as well as growing public support for protection of the environment. The first Earth Day was held in 1970. Several years later, it was estimated that the United States would spend more than $190 billion over the next 10 years to attain federal standards for air and water quality. NIST was a key player in the environmental movement because pollutant concentrations had to be measured accurately.

Among its energy conservation projects, NIST published design and evaluation criteria for new buildings. The publication served as the technical basis for industry's first major voluntary consensus standard for energy conservation in new buildings. A consultant's evaluation found that this new standard would reduce energy consumption by as much as 59 percent in some buildings. A study covering the time period 1975 to 1984 found that NIST's contribution to the energy cost savings in single-family houses due to the industry standard was $919 million in 1975 dollars ($2.6 billion in 1995 dollars)—many times more than the cost of the program. In a separate project, NIST developed testing and rating procedures for all major energy-consuming equipment in residential buildings to support the development of national efficiency standards by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Biologist Barbara Porter removes a container of tissue samples in NIST Biomonitoring Specimen Bank for analysis
The NIST Biomonitoring Specimen Bank stores thousand of tissue samples (e.g. human liver, oysters, and whale blubber) for monitoring long-term pollution and health trends. Here, biologist Barbara Porter removes a container of samples for analysis.
Credit: Copyright Robert Rathe Photography

Environmental research spanned air, water, soil, and living organisms. A portable meter was designed to detect a broad range of electromagnetic interference with twice the sensitivity of previous devices; it could be used to assess the emissions of appliances and maintain safe exposure levels for industrial workers. Various devices were developed to measure pollutants such as those from automobile emissions. A computer model was written to help allocate fish catches in a river system; the model provided a detailed analysis of the economic and biological effects of changes in the salmon fishery regulations.

In another area of environmental concern, NIST introduced Standard Reference Materials to help gauge radioactive contamination of the environment, the first and still leading international effort of this type. NIST also created a biomonitoring specimen bank in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thousands of specimens, ranging from marine mussels to human livers, were preserved in liquid nitrogen and then analyzed to measure changes in exposure to chemicals and pollutants over time. As the tissue banking activities expanded to encompass a broad range of environmental samples, Institute scientists established standard protocols and practices for proper handling of environmental samples. These procedures, as practiced by environmental labs around the world, help ensure the quality and reliability of environmental measures.


Notice of Online Archive: This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of 2001. For questions about page contents, please inquiries [at] (contact us).
Created July 23, 2013, Updated February 14, 2023