Best Known for Its Atomic Clock, This Institute Impacts Our Daily Lives

By Sharon Cutler

“Pull over and open everything up,” instructed the security guard at the entrance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “Open up your glove box, the console, the hood, the hatchback and the doors. I’m looking for drugs, alcohol and firearms.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has more Nobel Prize–winning scientists than any other government research facility. (photo courtesy NIST)

Fortunately, I didn’t have any contraband; just an invitation to tour the facility that I’ve driven past nearly every day for the 30 years I’ve lived in Boulder.

You may have passed NIST countless times without giving it a second glance. The building blends in with the landscape and is dwarfed by the majestic Flatirons that tower above. But NIST deserves a closer look for its colorful history, its Nobel Prize–
winning scientists and for the cutting-edge research underway at the base of the mountains.

Microscale atomic clocks have been developed for use in circuit boards and handheld devices.(photo courtesy NIST)

Mention NIST and most people think of the atomic clock. What they might not realize is that there are actually dozens of atomic clocks in the physical measurement lab, and not one of them tells the time of day. That’s because atomic clocks measure interval time: the length of a second. Their measurements impact people’s daily lives, explains John Lowe, time and frequency services leader at NIST. “Most of our technological infrastructure runs on time; from the 60-hertz power coming out of the wall socket to AM and FM radio stations, to walkie-talkies, to TVs, to cellphones, to GPS navigation. They all use time to synchronize each other.” The more accurate the measurement, the better our devices work.

While NIST houses dozens of atomic clocks, there are actually millions of atomic clocks keeping time around the globe. They are installed on cell towers and satellites; even jet airlines have atomic clocks built into their technology. Atomic clock technology, like everything else, keeps evolving. While the NIST F1, a cesium 133 clock developed by NIST researchers, is currently recognized as “the official timekeeper of the nation … the new and more stable device is optical clocks, which may be up to 10,000 times more accurate. Someday, optical clocks may be the standard,” explains Lowe. But for now, the world relies on the F1.

Microscale atomic clocks, also developed by NIST scientists, are the size of a computer chip and designed to function on circuit boards and in handheld devices. They are currently being mass-produced by a company in California, and are available to anyone—consumer or industry—willing to spend $2,000. You can spend up to $140,000 for your atomic clock, but it still won’t tell you the time of day.

Creating More Reliable MRI Tests

NIST is developing phantoms, calibration structures that characterize the quality of an MRI system. (photo courtesy NIST)

In the not-too-distant future, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) tests will be infinitely more reliable and may replace the biopsies now required to determine if a tumor is benign or cancerous. We’ll have NIST to thank for that, due to research being conducted today in the MRI lab, which is also part of the physical measurement lab. Katy Keenan, quantitative MRI project leader, explains that if you are currently on the receiving end of an MRI, you are subject to “the unknown measurement variation in the system.” If you have several MRIs taken with different scanners, she says. “You don’t know how the measurements compare from scanner to scanner. There are a lot of unknowns in what should be a quantitative measurement.” NIST is developing standard reference objects, called phantoms, so quantitative MRI measurements will yield consistent results.

Katy Keenan, NIST’s quantitative MRI project leader, is working to make MRIs more reliable. (photo courtesy Casie Zalud)

Phantoms are calibration structures that characterize the quality of the MRI system. NIST has developed breast, diffusion and system phantoms that are being produced by a Boulder company and deployed to academic research institutions for testing. Mayo Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and the University of Michigan are among the institutions using phantoms to quality-check their MRI scanners and collect data to support this research. The data will be used to help create protocols and standards to reduce measurement uncertainty.

“You want to be sure that when you get an MRI exam, it is worthwhile,” says Keenan. Because of the work being done at NIST, testing will one day be more accurate, less invasive and much less costly.

No More Communications Breakdown

NIST also houses the communications technology laboratory, home to the RF technology division, the public safety communication research division (PSCR) and the wireless network division, which provides measurements and standards so “everyone’s communications technology can work together,” explains Marla Dowell, director of the communications technology laboratory and the NIST Boulder laboratory director. NIST’s efforts will allow industry, consumers and first responders to communicate faster and more effectively and may ultimately save lives.

John Lowe, NIST’s time and frequency services leader, says NIST’s work in measuring the length of a second impacts technology, from cellphones to GPS navigation. (photo courtesy Casie Zalud)

In the 5G Lab, scientists are working with more than 100 partners from Samsung, Qualcomm, Intel and other industry leaders to develop the standards for 5G, the next generation of advanced wireless technology. “When the network is deployed, industry will have a common framework their equipment will work on,” explains Dowell. This framework will make more advancements, like virtual reality and driverless cars, possible.

“Anyone who communicates will benefit from 5G,” Dowell adds. “With the old 3G technology, if you were trying to stream a video on your phone, it was very painful.” With 5G communications, you’ll have higher speeds, lower latency and less congestion, resulting in more dependable access as wireless usage rises. And that’s just the start.
The PSCR lab “is a really exciting place to be right now,” says Dowell. There are two programs of particular interest. First, scientists are developing standards so that LTE devices for first responders will work anywhere on FirstNet, the nationwide broadband network for first responders. Second, PSCR has set up challenges (and prizes) to encourage industry development of commercial-based LTE solutions that can add functionality for first responders.

After 9/11, first-responder communication protocols were ramped up because police and emergency medical workers from different communities had been unable to communicate with each other because they were using different radio solutions. Now, NIST scientists are refining the protocols, so that when catastrophe strikes, first responders can communicate on the same broadband network.

“The problem with current public safety radios is that there is no GPS, you can’t Google anything on them. They’re just voice,” says Dowell. “And they are not interoperable.” In 2013, the FirstNet Authority was created to establish and operate a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network to greatly enhance functionality. “With the next generation of wireless, you could have voice, you could have GPS, you could call up the building plans. There are a lot of things that public safety people need,” explains Dowell.

And they will get them. Dowell is optimistic that NIST’s work will ultimately improve first responder communications. “NIST is not in the business of developing communication devices, but they can create prize challenges to encourage industry to submit proposals and develop prototype devices,” she says. Through its measurement expertise, NIST staff can evaluate the submissions and provide seed funding to cover the development costs of the new technology.

NIST’s channel sounder is a wireless lab used to help design reliable and secure wireless communications systems for industrial environments. (photo courtesy NIST)

The fact that Boulder’s NIST has had numerous Nobel Prize winners, more than any other U.S. government laboratory, is testament to the quality of work being done right here in Boulder. The Nobel Prize winners for their work in physics are: Bill Phillips for laser cooling, 1997; Eric Cornell for Bose-Einstein Condensates, 2001; Jan Hall for Frequency Combs, 2005; and Dave Wineland for experimental quantum mechanics in 2012. Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2011 for his work in chemistry with quasicrystals; he was on sabbatical at NIST in the early 1980s. The research being conducted at the facility impacts our daily lives in ways I never imagined.

My morning at NIST started with a car search and ended with a deep appreciation of the science happening right at the base of the Flatirons. If you are curious about other projects underway at NIST, visit

How NIST came to Boulder

President Eisenhower (image by Shutterstock)

In 1949, the U.S. Congress authorized $4.4 million for land acquisition and the construction of a new Radio Propagation Lab to house programs in radio propagation and standards research. The caveat was that the facility had to be located outside of Washington, D.C., in the event of a possible nuclear attack. Further, the site needed to have sufficient land, lack radio frequency or broadcast interference from nearby communities, and be in proximity to a university with strong programs in electrical engineering. In all, 28 sites were evaluated, and Boulder, along with Charlottesville, Va., and Palo Alto, Calif., were the top three finalists.

Once Boulder was a finalist, the Chamber of Commerce located the perfect tract of land. The 208-acre parcel marked the southern boundary of Boulder. It was just west of what is now Broadway, and stretched up to Boulder Open Space. In one week, 296 individuals, businesses and organizations contributed $90,000 to acquire the site.

The Chamber offered the land to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), what is now known as NIST, who accepted the offer and selected Boulder for the new Radio Propagation Lab. Ground was broken in 1952 and, in 1954, President Eisenhower visited the site to dedicate the new lab.


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