NIST Boulder Laboratories: An Overview

Although many people don't realize it, the NIST Boulder Laboratories make possible many technologies that are commonplace in everyday life. Just a few examples include:

  • Time: Watches, computer clocks, and other timekeeping devices are often linked to the world's most accurate atomic clock at the NIST Boulder Laboratories. NIST official time is disseminated to such devices several billion times each day, and is used to time-stamp hundreds of billions of dollars worth of financial transactions conducted every business day. NIST Boulder precision time standards also underpin telecommunications systems, GPS positioning and navigation, electric power distribution, and TV and radio broadcasts.
  • Lasers: The performance of lasers used for everything from surgery to DVD players to making computer chips is assured by NIST Boulder measurements and standards.
  • Materials: From the atomic scale to the largest man-made structures, materials research and measurements at NIST Boulder help computer chips, medical devices, pipelines, and bridges work better and more reliably.

A world leader in the physical sciences and precision measurement for more than half a century, NIST Boulder provides research, measurements, technology, tools, data, and services that enable innovation and improve the quality of our lives. NIST Boulder is located in a rich research environment near the University of Colorado at Boulder, and collaborates with industrial, academic, and government laboratories across the nation and around the world. Many Colorado companies rely on NIST Boulder measurements and research for innovation in nanotechnology, electronics, biosciences, aerospace, defense, energy, and homeland security.

NIST Boulder and the University of Colorado jointly operate JILA, a world leader in atomic, molecular, and optical physics and precision measurement. JILA is home to two NIST Nobel laureates and one NIST MacArthur "Genius Award" winner.

Located by the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the NIST Boulder Laboratories has about 350 scientific, technical, and support staff, and more than 300 visiting researchers, students, and contractors. With an annual research and measurement budget of about $100 million, NIST Boulder is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md.

NIST Boulder Research Areas

Atomic Clocks—NIST Boulder develops standards for time and frequency and distributes time by radio and the Internet. The NIST-F1 atomic clock—the U.S. national standard for time and frequency—counts the natural vibrations in cesium atoms to an accuracy of about one second in 100 million years. And NIST Boulder scientists are developing new clocks that will be accurate to one second in many billions of years to support improved navigation, communications, remote sensing, and many other applications. NIST Boulder scientists also pioneered the world's smallest atomic clocks, the size of a grain of rice, which may someday improve GPS, cell phones, and a range of other portable applications.

Nanotechnology—NIST Boulder has been a leader in nanotechnology—research at very small size scales—for decades. Dozens of NIST Boulder projects focus on nanoscience and technology, ranging from applications of carbon nanotubes in optical power standards for laser systems used in manufacturing and communications, to research on nano-oscillators that could replace bulkier and expensive components in cell phones, radar systems, and computer chips. Unique nanotechnology fabrication facilities at the laboratories are used to make special research and measurement devices.

Superconducting Electronics—NIST Boulder has world-leading expertise in the design and fabrication of superconducting integrated circuits, which are applied to a wide range of challenging and state-of-the-art measurement problems, from fundamental electrical metrology, to detection of individual photons, to nuclear forensics and non-proliferation, and quantum information systems.

Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics—NIST Boulder is a world leader in the development of new tools for research on atoms, molecules, and the interactions of matter and light, and their applications to improve precision measurements. A priority application is research and measurements for quantum information, using the unique behavior of atoms and light to develop ultra-secure communications for protecting sensitive information such as financial transactions, and for developing quantum computers that could be vastly more powerful than today's best supercomputers.

A Sampling of NIST Boulder "Firsts"

1972—NIST makes a world-record measurement of the frequency of laser light, leading to a more accurate value for the speed of light and redefinition of the meter.

1978—NIST achieves the first successful demonstration of laser cooling, concurrently with another research group, opening a new field of research on ultracold atoms.

1980—NIST wins Emmy Award for closed captioning, based on a technique for hiding time codes in TV signals.

1981—NIST publishes the first comprehensive study of the properties of hydrogen, providing data that are still used today as hydrogen is evaluated as an automotive fuel.

1988—NIST demonstrates a groundbreaking technique, still widely used today, for computing an antenna's performance at long distances using data collected more easily near the antenna.

1995—NIST scientists working with University of Colorado researchers at JILA create a new form of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate, which led to the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics.

2000—NIST demonstrates a technique enabling frequency combs to directly link optical and radio frequencies, contributing to the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics.

2004—NIST demonstrates, concurrently with another research group, the first "teleportation" of information stored in atoms, a technique that may be useful in quantum computing.

2004—NIST demonstrates the first chip-scale atomic clock and first chip-scale atomic magnetometer, bringing atomic precision to a wide range of compact applications.

Electromagnetics—NIST Boulder scientists measure and study electromagnetic radiation and properties to support the development of ever-faster and smaller computers, radar, satellite, and wireless devices. NIST Boulder measurements and technology also promote the practical use of superconductors in applications such as power grid reliability and future fusion energy production, and the development of new electromagnetic nanotechnologies for everything from improved biomedical imaging to information storage to quantum computing.

Optoelectronics—The laboratories provide laser performance standards over a wider range of wavelengths than any other measurement laboratory, supporting telecommunications, medical applications, and industrial uses. NIST Boulder makes and studies unique devices such as compound-semiconductor nanowires for light-emitting diodes and nanolasers. NIST Boulder also develops and measures devices to produce and detect individual photons—the smallest particles of light—for use in ultra-secure quantum communications and unique optical measurements.

Materials—NIST Boulder scientists develop measurement methods and standards to enhance the quality and reliability of materials, from the level of individual atoms to the scale of pipelines and skyscrapers. They are developing ways to better measure the purity and safety of new nanomaterials, the integrity of steel pipelines for transporting alternative fuels such as hydrogen, and the mechanical properties of biological materials for use in diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Mathematical, Statistical, and Computational Methods—NIST Boulder research in mathematics and statistics supports a wide variety of measurement applications. For example, NIST Boulder develops techniques for the design of future quantum computers, for the study of ultra-high-speed signals for fiber-optic and wireless communications and radar, and for obtaining the best measurements from "noisy" data.

Laser Science—NIST Boulder is a world leader in laser science, including the development of optical frequency combs, Nobel-Prize-winning precision tools for measuring different colors of light, and their applications in the latest atomic clocks and precision measurements. NIST scientists are renowned for their work in laser cooling—the use of laser light to cool atoms to near absolute zero—and the creation of Bose-Einstein and fermionic condensates, unique states of matter of global research interest.

Chemical Properties—The research staff at NIST Boulder develop measurements, standards, data, and models for physical and chemical properties of gases, liquids, solids, and ultracold refrigeration systems. NIST Boulder research and measurements on alternative fuels and biofuels help make the nation's energy future more economical and secure, and NIST Boulder leadership in cryogenic technologies underpins advances in aerospace, defense, and medical applications.

Quantum Sensors—NIST Boulder is the world leader in microelectronic devices that use quantum physics to create previously impossible measurement systems. Based on superconductivity and operating at very low temperatures, these systems continue to revolutionize the way the world measures voltage, probes electronics at the single electron level, "sees" the faintest light from the origins of the universe, and identifies nuclear materials. The same devices also are being explored for building quantum computers.

Recent Examples of NIST Boulder Technology Transfer

  • NIST responds to more than 2.5 billion requests daily for atomic time via the Internet
  • NIST superconducting sensors enhance the precision of nuclear materials identification for Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • NIST magnetic tape analysis system enables faster and easier forensic investigations for the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • NIST chemical properties data sets expand the capabilities of commercial process modeling software available to 45,000 corporate customers

For further information, visit or

NIST Boulder Laboratories
Michael H. Kelley
(303) 497-4736

Tom O'Brian
Chief, NIST Quantum Physics Division
Adjoint Fellow, JILA
(303) 497-6807

Created May 26, 2010, Updated September 21, 2016