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First Arab Conference on Calibration and Measurement
Nov. 6, 2007
Dr. James M. Turner
Acting Director National Institute of Standards and Technology

Presentation Slides that accompanied this talk [pdf]


I’m excited to be here for this First Arab Conference on Calibrations and Measurements.

It is fitting that you are holding this conference in Egypt. Some 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians were among the first to understand the importance of accurate measurement. The most famous example of this is the Egyptian cubit. The cubit traces back to about 3,000 B.C. and was used for some 3,000 years.

Based on the length of the Pharaoh’s forearm and hand, the cubit made possible many of the magnificent structures such as the pyramids that survive to this day.

Very similar to the way we handle national standards today, there was a “royal cubit master” made of unvarying granite as well as less durable “working” or “transfer standard” cubits made of wood. At each full moon, the wood cubits would be checked or calibrated against the master cubit to ensure their accuracy.

These ancient people took their metrology very seriously. The penalty for failing to maintain the accuracy of the cubit was death! As a result, their measurement accuracy was impressive. Over a distance of 230 meters, measurements typically varied by only 0.05 percent.

Other ancient cultures in Babylonia (now modern Iraq) and China had their own exacting systems of measurements.

The U.S. heritage for measurement uniformity traces back to a key document important to the establishment of Great Britain. The Magna Carta, written in the year 1215, calls for “one measure for ale, one measure for wine, and one measure for corn.” And we also owe a debt of gratitude to the French. In the late 1700s as they struggled with 800 different names for various measures, with different values in different towns, they eventually created the international system of measurements, the Metric System, that we all use today.

Measurements also feature prominently in the key document that established the governing system for the United States, the U.S. Constitution. National lawmakers were given the power to coin money and to “fix the standard of weights and measures.” The fact that our founding fathers thought of measurement standards immediately after they thought of money is no accident.

Measurements and money are fundamentally linked. A nation’s measurement system determines its fairness in trade and the quality of its products, which in turn has a major effect on its success in the global marketplace.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this tie between measurements and economic growth is to trace the effect of my organization, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, on the economic well-being of the United States.

NIST was established by the U.S. Congress in 1901. At that time, weights and measures in the U.S. were not uniform. There were eight different “authoritative” ways to measure liquid amounts. Our scientific instruments needed to be sent to Europe for calibration, and our consumer products were of poor quality and unreliable.

NIST was established as our nation’s first federal laboratory for physical sciences. Our early work focused on the then brand new electrical industry. In the early 1900s, NIST worked to develop standards for accurately measuring electricity and participated in international efforts to define quantities like the volt.

This theme of supporting fledging industries has continued to this day. The analogy we often use is that NIST provides the infrastructure, the “roads and bridges,” that industry and science need to develop and commercialize new technologies. When a new area like nanotechnology, or biometrics, or biofuels comes on the scene, there is a lack of a common vocabulary or a set of agreed upon ways to describe both the performance of products made with the new technology and their quantities.

NIST helps fill this gap by learning all we can about the new field, typically many years before products using the technology arrive in the marketplace. At the same time we partner with our industry and university laboratories to gain firsthand knowledge of any measurement needs that are impeding progress in the field.

As our formal mission statement says, NIST works 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.

We do this with an array of different types of programs, about 2800 staff members, and numerous types of collaborations that take place on several different campuses. We have 10 different major laboratories and support groups specializing in different disciplines. In addition, NIST manages and partially funds a network of locally operated field offices providing assistance to smaller manufacturers. We manage a national quality award that recognizes operational excellence by a wide range of different types of organizations. And we have been authorized by our Congress to begin a new program to promote and accelerate innovation in the United States through high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need.

One of key advantages at NIST is the quality of our staff. NIST scientists have won the Nobel Prize in Physics three times since 1997. Other staff members have equally impressive national and international awards.

Our facilities are also among the best in the world. In particular, in 2004 we completed a new Advanced Measurement Laboratory that is the most advanced facility of its kind in the world. The almost 50,000 gross square meter facility has five wings, two of which are entirely underground. No other facility of this size has so successfully achieved the combined features of strict temperature and humidity control, vibration isolation, air cleanliness, and quality of electrical power.

As the title of my talk points out, a key idea behind NIST and one that drives our laboratory program can be summarized in five words, “to measure is to know.” This famous idea comes from Lord Kelvin, the 19th century Scottish scientist for whom the absolute temperature scale is named. If you can’t measure something well, you can’t really understand it. If you can’t understand it, it will be very difficult to improve it.

This systematic effort to know where new technologies are heading and to measure them as well as possible places NIST in a central position to strengthen the U.S. economy. Our new measurement methods boost U.S. research and development, which in turn boosts innovation in the form of new products. Our standards development activities support commerce and broader trade. And programs in support of technology, including cost-shared grants to industry and assistance program for small manufacturers, boost the competitiveness of our industries, increasing their productivity so that they continue to produce new jobs.

The bottom line: Even though NIST is one of the smaller U.S. national laboratories in terms of our annual budget, we have tremendous impact on the everyday lives of our citizens. From industry to trade to public safety to health care, our programs help continually move the nation forward.

Perhaps the best way to prove this is with examples. In the mid-1990s for example, manufacturers of fiber optic cables were finding that differences in the diameters of these very thin manufactured fibers were causing signal loss. The fibers did not match up perfectly, causing some of the signal carrying light to leak out. NIST worked with U.S. fiber manufacturers to develop accurate measurement methods and issued a physical standard, a Standard Reference Material, that they could use to check their own measurements. The reference material was a sample of fiber that was measured very carefully by NIST. By matching this sample with a known diameter up against their manufactured samples, U.S. manufacturers were able to quickly improve their processes and the quality of their fibers, simultaneously capturing more of the international market.

This need for speed in improving products is another key advantage that a metrology institute like NIST can provide to a nation. NIST recently developed an advanced materials technique that allows researchers to measure the properties of tiny amounts of these new materials very quickly and accurately. Previously, manufacturers would have to spend $20 million and 10 years to fully understand all of the properties of one new material such as a new adhesive or detergent. With the new NIST technique, the time and cost of such development work has been cut by 80 percent. And because this project has built in partners in industry and universities, more than 20 organizations are already using the new method.

Nanotechnology is another rapidly developing area. The global nanotechnology industry is predicted to exceed $1 trillion by 2015. The challenge here is that not only is this a brand new area of technology, but the things we are trying to measure are incredibly small and their properties at this size—less than 100 billionths of a meter—can be completely different than bulk materials or devices. And because these are materials that are literally on the same size scales as the cells in our bodies we need to be careful about how they are handled to ensure safety.

Carbon nanotubes, for example, are super strong fibers that may find applications in everything from nanoelectronic circuits to medicines to aircraft. They are made from sheets of carbon atoms rolled into tubes. NIST is developing a carbon nanotube reference material that manufacturers can use to verify the quality, purity, and consistency of their nanotechnology products. This will help them incorporate carbon nanotubes into sophisticated products that have stringent requirements for quality and performance.

In the petrochemicals area, NIST work at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) has included using neutrons as probes to examine diesel and other types of petroleum-based fuels. Neutrons can be used to identify aggregates or clumps that form in fuels and then to show the effect of additives such as detergents that break up these clumps and allow fuels to flow better in both pipelines and in vehicle engines.

As I mentioned earlier, NIST has been around for more than 100 years. And we have developed expertise in a very wide range of areas. We produce more than 1,300 standard reference materials and a wide variety of other products and services that help keep our economy growing.

And when I say that these measurement services and products produce these results, I’m not just assuming that this is the case. NIST also measures the impact of our measurements. Through a series of formal studies that we have conducted over the years, we’ve found that the economic benefits from developing measurement infrastructures exceed the cost of NIST programs by 44 to 1. Put another way, for every dollar spent on a NIST infrastructure measurement research, U.S. society reaps $44 in benefits.

So, if I have convinced you that metrology and measurements and standards are economically beneficial, then the task for this assembly will be to find ways to use these methods to advance the economies of your own nations.

Certainly, establishing more regional cooperation on measurements and standards with events such as this meeting is a great step forward. Technology for both products and services has become so complex that no one nation can expect to be expert in everything. By cooperating regionally, you can build on one another’s strengths for the benefit of industries throughout the Arab world.

A good model to consider is the InterAmerican Metrology System, known simply as SIM. This is a regional metrology group of 34 countries, organized in five subregions. The organization concentrates on measurements and standards critical to the Western Hemisphere, recognizing the potentially different challenges in each subregion. SIM contributes to the measurement infrastructure required for equity of commercial transactions and to foster competitiveness and quality in the manufacturing sector and also to measurements needed to protect the environment and to promote health and safety.

Similarly, the recently established regional organization for Africa, known as AFRIMETS will focus on improving the measurement and standards infrastructure throughout Africa, an essential step for developing the economic growth of the continent.

For our part, NIST is committed to working with our Arab partners in ways that contribute toward improved metrology. For the last ten years, under the auspices a U.S.-Egyptian Government to Government Science and Technology Agreement, we have had a joint program with Egypt’s National Institute for Standards (NIS), which provides for scientific and technical cooperation in chemistry, physics, engineering, and measurement sciences. Several beneficial workshops have been held and many joint research projects have been established. For example, NIST researchers have hosted Egyptian researchers at our laboratories to improve measurements of trace elements in cotton and for oil pressure standards.

Elsewhere in the region, NIST has had a long-standing relationship with the Saudi Arabial Standards Organization (SASO) and with the Gulf Cooperation Council and has recently initiated activities with Jordan, particularly in support of development of the measurement and standards infrastructure in Iraq. Links have also been established with the Libyan Center for Standardization and Metrology and the Algerian National Office of Legal Metrology.

Certainly, there are plenty of measurement challenges to go around!

Just in case you need any convincing on this last point, I‘d like to end by describing NIST’s most ambitious collaboration yet. Earlier this year we completed a very broad assessment of the state of the U.S. measurement system. This multiyear, NIST-led project identified more than 700 scientific and technical measurement challenges hampering innovation across a sample of 11 industrial sectors and technology areas. These included such as industries as chemicals; electronics; energy, power, and environment; health care; materials; and nanotechnology. More than 1,000 people in industry, academia, and government were involved in the study. We are now using the results to prioritize our work and develop research strategies.

The message here is that adopting the best metrology to meet your nations’ needs is a constantly moving target. New technologies are constantly emerging, new measurements and standards are continually needed. Your efforts this week to collaborate and form lasting partnerships are truly admirable. I hope that NIST can provide support and fruitful exchanges that help ensure your success. Based on our own experience, I can tell you that the economic benefits of the journey are well worth it. The ultimate beneficiaries will be all of your nations’ citizens.

Thank you very much for your attention.