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NIST Boulder's Precision Measurement Laboratory

Boulder PML building

The NEW Precision Measurement Laboratory (PML) is one of the most advanced facilities in the world for research at the frontiers of measurement science. The laboratory will help the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) fulfill its mission to meet the nation's measurement science needs for the 21st century and support U.S. innovation and competitiveness.

The PML meets rigorous requirements for temperature and humidity control, air cleanliness, vibration stability, and electrical power quality. This high level of performance will enhance research productivity and enable the sophisticated measurements needed by U.S. industry and the scientific community in national priority areas, including nanotechnology, communications, security, health care, and emerging technologies such as quantum computing.

Design and construction of the $118.6 million advanced laboratory was funded in part through NIST appropriations, with $84.9 million of that total provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for customization and interior fixtures. The PML also has new equipment for micro- and nanofabrication and imaging purchased with ARRA funding.

PML Specifications

Total Area: about 26,300 square meters (about 283,000 square feet), including advanced research and measurement laboratories, a "class 100" cleanroom for micro- and nanofabrication, offices, common areas, and conference rooms

Temperature Control (labs): ± 0.5 degrees F (± 0.25 degrees C), more than 10-fold improvement over most older NIST labs

Humidity Control: ± 5 percent humidity versus ± 20 percent in older NIST labs

Air Quality: HEPA-filtered, 1,000-fold improvement over older NIST labs

Vibration Control: velocity amplitude of 3 micrometers per second at 20 hertz (Hz) to 100 Hz, about 15 times better than older NIST labs

Research in the PML

NIST is the nation's source for the most demanding measurements, standards, data, and tools. Technological advances depend on increasingly complex and difficult measurements. For example, NIST Boulder researchers routinely measure dimensions on the nanoscale (the size of a few atoms). At these levels, even tiny fluctuations in temperature, humidity, air quality, or vibration can distort results.

Tight control of environmental conditions in the PML will substantially improve the productivity of research in a wide range of advanced technology areas. Following are some examples.

Atomic Clocks—NIST atomic clock research supports technologies crucial to U.S. economic security and defense, such as advanced navigation and positioning, high-speed telecommunications, and synchronization of many billions of dollars in financial transactions each day. The PML's vibration and temperature control supports continual advances in time keeping, including improvements to U.S. civilian time and frequency standards based on the cesium atom and development of next-generation atomic clocks based on other atoms and ions (electrically charged atoms) such as aluminum, mercury, ytterbium, and calcium.

Frequency Combs—The PML's vibration and temperature controls make it easier for scientists to evaluate and use frequency combs, precision tools for measuring frequencies, or colors, of light. Frequency combs are crucial to an ever-growing range of applications, from advanced atomic clocks to medical diagnosis, high-speed communications, and remote detection and measurement of chemicals for security and environmental monitoring.

Quantum Information—The PML supports NIST's world-leading research on quantum computing using different architectures, including atoms and superconducting circuits, as well as development of single-photon sources and detectors for quantum communications and research on novel states of light. Quantum computers may one day solve important problems that are intractable today. In general, quantum systems can offer new capabilities including powerful measurement techniques.

Composite photo of microwave apparatus
Composite photo of microwave apparatus used in NIST quantum computing experiments.
Credit: Y. Colombe/NIST
Advanced Electronics—High-tech electronics operate most predictably within a narrow temperature range. Strict PML temperature and vibration controls enable reliable high-frequency and high-speed measurements up to and beyond 100 gigahertz (one billion cycles per second), as needed for advanced electronics, high-speed computing, and advanced telecommunications and sensing.

Atomic clock
Nanotechnology—The PML's temperature and vibration stability and dust control support development and measurements of magnetic, optical, and electronic nanotechnologies—devices with dimensions measured in billionths of a meter. Examples include photonic devices made of quantum dots and nanowires, memory devices based on electron "spins," and magnetic nanodots for data storage.

The stringent environmental controls will improve fabrication yields and enable development of more finely tailored devices for quantum communications, electronic metrology, and optical power measurements. The PML also supports research extending the capabilities of atomic force microscopy to characterize mechanical and other properties of materials at the nanoscale.

Phannie is the first “phantom” for calibrating magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines that is traceable to standardized values. The plastic sphere is about the size of a person’s head and filled with 100 smaller spheres used as contrast-enhancing agents and measurement reference markers.
Credit: S. Russek/NIST
Biomedical Measurements—The PML has a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to support the development of calibration standards and new types of magnetic contrast agents for MRI, which images the body's internal tissues and organs without the use of harmful radiation. NIST's biomedical measurement research is intended to help make MRI quantitative and traceable to standardized values. Currently, doctors can use MRI scans only as qualitative diagnosis tools and can accurately compare scans only to others made with the same instrument. The research also may help reduce medical costs by improving image quality and reliability.

Boulder MicroFab—NIST Boulder produces custom microfabricated devices for its own world-leading research and measurements supporting electrical standards, homeland security, and quantum computing and communications experiments. NIST Boulder also fabricates unique devices used by external partners for applications such as precision astronomical research and measurements.

The PML consolidates three former micro- and nanofabrication operations into one modern facility for custom fabrication of superconducting, magnetic, optoelectronic, and micro-electromechanical devices. The clean air and stable temperatures and humidity improve process yield and efficiency in fabrication of devices such as voltage standards, sensor arrays, and complex circuits for measurement applications.

Precision Imaging Facility—The PML's imaging facility provides new capabilities for precisely measuring the structure and chemical composition of materials at sub-nanometer scales, and for studying and creating technologically important materials and devices at the atomic level.

  • A helium ion microscope provides a new method for imaging surfaces of biological and inorganic materials.
  • A transmission electron microscope offers the resolution needed to characterize crystalline materials used for nanoscale and quantum light sources and quantum information circuits.
  • A focused ion beam/scanning electron microscope can selectively mill devices and materials to reveal their internal structure.
  • A field ion microscope, or atom probe, can reveal the location and chemical composition of structures invisible to other methods.

Helium Recovery System—The PML features a system to recover and recycle helium, to help conserve this increasingly scarce resource used for cryogenic refrigeration in many NIST experiments.

Offices and Conference Center—The PML has office space for about 100 people and a small conference facility, including a patio and exhibit areas, to host meetings of up to 150 attendees.


Created March 30, 2012, Updated January 23, 2017