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.
William F. Hillebrand became Chief Chemist of the laboratory, a position
he held for 21 years.
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
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
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.
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. NISTs 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 NISTs 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.
chemists right hand
In 1952, NISTs 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 Divisions 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
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.
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 NISTs 12 health care
markers. New standards for DNA diagnostics will help ensure the accuracy
of tests for diseases, including cancer. The Institutes first standard
for DNA profiling, released in 1992, paved the way for DNA acceptance in
In May 1999, NISTs 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