The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was founded in 1901, and is now part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Based in Gaithersburg, MD, it was established to remove a major challenge to U.S. industrial competitiveness at the time — a second-rate measurement infrastructure that lagged behind the capabilities of the United Kingdom, Germany, and other economic rivals.

The new breast phantom developed with High Precision Devices consists of two components. The one at left is designed to provide a standard for measuring proton spin relaxation time, which varies with different kinds of tissue. The one at right provides references for imaging diffusion.

Its mission is broad: to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. From a smart electric power grid and electronic health records, to atomic clocks, advanced nanomaterials, and computer chips, innumerable products and services rely in some way on technology, measurement, and standards provided by NIST.

NIST’s acting director is Kent Rochford, the Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology. NIST measurements support the smallest of technologies to the largest and most complex of human-made creations, from nanoscale devices so tiny that tens of thousands can fit on the end of a single human hair, up to earthquake-resistant skyscrapers and global communication networks.

Seven laboratories comprise NIST:

  • Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST)
  • Communications Technology Laboratory (CTL)
  • Engineering Laboratory (EL)
  • Information Technology Laboratory (ITL)
  • Material Measurement Laboratory (MML)
  • NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR)
  • Physical Measurement Laboratory (PML)

Standards and Measurements

Standards allow technology to work seamlessly and establish trust so that markets can operate smoothly. They provide a common language to measure and evaluate performance, make interoperability of components made by different companies possible, and protect consumers by ensuring safety, durability, and market equity.

NIST’s portfolio of services for measurements, standards, and legal metrology provides solutions that ensure measurement traceability, enable quality assurance, and harmonize documentary standards and regulatory practices. The tools, information, and training provided by NIST — and the contributions and results produced by its staff — lead to advancements in research and technological innovation.

Industry Impacts

The high-frequency switched array antenna system for systematic studies of behavior of 5G signals in different physical environments was developed at NIST.

As industry’s national laboratory, NIST is dedicated to supporting U.S. competitiveness in areas of national importance, from communications technology and cybersecurity, to advanced manufacturing and disaster resilience. Below is a sampling of ways NIST’s work in the areas of measurement science, standards, and technology is helping to enhance economic security and improve quality of life.

Community Resilience - Hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires can’t be prevented, but informed community planning could reduce the impact of these hazards. NIST brought together state and local governments, first responders, and businesses across the country to develop tools that will improve planning and help communities recover more quickly from disasters.

Improving Medical Imaging - When a patient goes to a doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic to get an MRI scan, he or she trusts that the medical imaging technologies are working properly. NIST and its partners developed tools to benchmark those tests to support medical decisions and ensure patient trust. NIST recently worked with Boulder, CO-based High Precision Devices to create a new breast cancer screening phantom that is compatible with MRI systems from most manufacturers. Breast phantoms from the first production run are now in use, and are employed in a large, multisite clinical trial.

5G Wireless Communications - 5G wireless communications technology will allow many more devices to send information much faster, making possible everything from virtual reality to driverless cars. NIST works to understand how those technologies behave, so next-generation wireless networks can be deployed sooner and with a better user experience.

Automotive Lightweighting - Automotive companies are increasingly using lightweight materials to improve vehicle fuel economy; however, incorporating those materials into new vehicles is time-consuming and costly. NIST data and models are helping automakers understand and predict how materials behave in the harsh conditions inherent to manufacturing.

Biopharmaceuticals - Protein-based biologic drugs, which are increasingly used to treat cancers, autoimmune disorders, and infectious diseases, are hard to produce, store, and deliver reliably. Better measurement tools developed by NIST drive innovation and lower costs associated with these drugs.

Cardiac Devices - In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of patients were affected by two major recalls of electrical leads used in cardiac pacemakers and implanted defibrillators due to early failures. Today, NIST’s reliability tests are helping manufacturers ensure their cardiac devices last for the length of time promised to patients.

A computer model of fire at The Station nightclub shows the temperature variation after 90 seconds at 0.6 meter (2 feet) above the floor. (NIST)

Commercial Building Fire Protection - Commercial buildings are over-engineered for fire protection, leading to billions of dollars in waste with little benefit to occupant safety. NIST leads research about how fires burn in buildings, and develops tools so architects can confidently identify ways to cut costs without undermining safety.

Cybersecurity - Cyberattacks cost businesses an estimated $400B per year globally from direct damage and post-attack operation disruption. To give companies a way to evaluate and address their cyber risks in this quickly evolving technology age, NIST developed the Cybersecurity Framework that provides organizations with a tool to understand their cybersecurity risks, and how to mitigate these risks with cybersecurity measures tailored specifically to their risk appetite.

Efficient Lighting - While the advantages of more energy-efficient lighting are clear, early replacements for traditional incandescent lamps didn’t meet customer expectations or manufacturer claims. NIST worked with industry partners to develop new measurement techniques so next-generation lighting could meet customer needs. NIST also developed standards for the solid-state lighting market.

First Responder Communications - First responders must be able to communicate during an emergency. Too often in critical situations, communications among public safety agencies are hampered by interoperability problems. NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program is helping technology vendors determine how they can best meet the unique needs of the public safety community.