NIST: contributions to chemistry

The earliest standards
Heat and thermometry were early concerns of the newly formed laboratory. In 1901, the lab acquired specially constructed thermometers in Europe and was prepared to certify almost any precision thermometer used in scientific work. But a unified standard was needed. By 1927, after years of research, laboratories in Great Britain, Germany and the United States proposed the adoption of an international scale ranging from the temperature of liquid oxygen to that of incandescent bodies. The first cryogenic investigations of extreme low temperatures began in 1904.

In 1905, the railroad industry was trying to solve the problem of rail car derailments caused by the fracturing of cast iron wheels. The industry called on the Chemistry Division to provide "standardizing" materials to calibrate measuring systems for quality control during production. The first Standard Samples defined composition of various types of iron.

In 1906, the laboratory initiated the Standard Reference Materials program — well-characterized homogenous materials or simple artifacts certified by NIST as possessing specific physical and chemical properties. That year, NIST answered a request from refrigeration engineers to provide physical data for more efficient refrigeration by determining specific heats of several calcium chloride brines. This early work has grown into 50 electronic databases, including information for analytical chemistry, biotechnology, chemical engineering, thermodynamics and thermochemistry.

In 1908, William F. Hillebrand became Chief Chemist of the laboratory, a position he held for 21 years.

Industry standards
The laboratory addressed construction industry standards in 1911, testing 23,900 samples of cement purchased for government projects. By 1912, a single specification certified for chemical composition governed all federal construction purchases.

During World War I, NIST performed composition analysis and properties determinations for chemicals and steels used in weapon production.

In 1917, research began in standards for dental amalgams. In 1919, the gas chemistry section pioneered the development of thermal-conductivity methods, using with new instruments for showing the presence and amount of combustible gasses in air.

Automotive industry standards, pursued in 1922, included research on engines to identify ways to increase operating efficiency. Also in the lab's early years, chemists began using the polariscope, an instrument that measures the rotation of polarized light to analyze solutions, to help standardize operations in U.S. Customs Service laboratories.

The Chemistry Division made the first "heavy water" produced by electrolysis in 1931 and, together with the Cryogenic Laboratory, supported theoretical work that subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Harold Urey.

In early 1940, NIST participated in the Manhattan Project, developing a new technique for the analysis of impurities in uranium and a method of ether extraction that became the standard technique for purifying uranium. Also during the 1940s, NIST advanced national standards by developing tests such as the measurement of freezing points to determine material purity.

In a highly classified project in 1947, the chemical division developed carbon monoxide indicators by producing a sensitive calorimetric-indicating gel placed in a tube for use in the cockpits of fighter planes and crew quarters of bombers.


Rubber and polymers
NIST was instrumental in the early development of two ubiquitous American products: synthetic rubber and plastics. When the war cut off imports of natural rubber in 1943, NIST used previous work on the thermodynamics of rubber to help determine which types of synthetics to use. NIST’s application of viscometry for characterization and testing became a valuable tool in the synthetic rubber industry.

During the 1940s and 1950s, thermochemical determinations gave an important boost to the nascent synthetic polymer industry. NIST determined heats of combustion and heats of formation for precursor compounds and for series of compounds to address basic questions such as the effect of cis-trans isomerism on reaction energies. Today, nearly all manufacturers of the polymer resins that become the raw material for making products — from video cassettes to indestructible playground equipment — rely on NIST’s Standard Reference Materials. Many are interested in SRMs in which the distribution of molecular sizes, or molecular weights, has been well-characterized and certified — one of the most important properties in determining how a resin will behave during processing.

The chemist’s right hand
In 1952, NIST’s 1,200-page circular, Selected Values of Chemical Thermodynamic Properties, culminated 20 years’ work in evaluating and systematizing data that appeared in chemistry literature. The book was a powerful tool for predicting the nature of chemical reactions and became the bible of thermochemists.

The Electrochemistry Division’s testing of a commercial battery additive called AD-X2 led to Congressional hearings in 1953. By helping to expose fraudulent claims, NIST garnered praise for its testing procedures and integrity.

During the 1950s, NIST developed a new method to accurately measure isotopic abundance in Standard Reference Materials used in nuclear chemistry and geochemistry. In the early 1960s, this process was applied to support determination of the Faraday constant (basic to determination of the ampere) and to improve the accuracy of the key element of weight determination for the unified atomic weight scale.

In recent years, NIST has worked with state air quality boards, automobile manufacturers and the petroleum industry to develop unique reference materials that help ensure air pollution reduction goals are met.

From nanotechnology to biotechnology
The ability to answer questions regarding the chemical composition of surfaces and interfaces depends on the spatial resolution capabilities of measurement technologies. To assist industry in attaining ultra-high resolution depth profiles, NIST develops measurement tools that enable chemical characterization of major, minor and trace elements, isotopes, and molecules at the millimeter to nanometer spatial scales.

One example of current NIST research at the nanoscale is the use of DNA sensors. DNA array technology is used in drug discovery, characterization of genetic and infectious diseases and cancer diagnosis.

In 1967, NIST developed the first Standard Reference Materials for clinical applications — a measurement for serum cholesterol. This pure crystalline material is used by laboratories to calibrate instruments, dramatically reducing false negative or positive results.

Today, serum cholesterol measurement is one of NIST’s 12 health care markers. New standards for DNA diagnostics will help ensure the accuracy of tests for diseases, including cancer. The Institute’s first standard for DNA profiling, released in 1992, paved the way for DNA acceptance in court.

Future advances
In May 1999, NIST’s Advanced Chemical Sciences Laboratory began addressing 21st-century needs in pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical diagnostics, pollution monitoring and cleanup, nutritional analysis, and tissue engineering. The Advanced Measurement Laboratory, to be completed in 2004, will enable NIST chemists to keep pace with emerging technologies and to continue cutting-edge research.

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