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Sustaining Scientific Advances and Innovation: NIST Boulder's New Precision Measurement Laboratory


New NIST Boulder Laboratory to Offer World-Class Performance

B1E Artist Rendering
Architectural rendering of NIST Boulder’s new Precision Measurement Laboratory.
©HDR Inc

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is building a new advanced research and measurement laboratory on its campus in Boulder, Colo. The Precision Measurement Laboratory (PML) will help NIST better meet the needs of U.S. industry and science in key national priority areas such as nanotechnology, new energy sources, enhanced telecommunications, and radically new information technology such as quantum computers. Designed as an extension to the existing Building 1 on the Boulder campus, the laboratory will be one of the most advanced in the world.

NIST scientists need the new facilities for precision research such as measuring properties of individual atoms, building new atomic clocks that would have to run for billions of years before they would gain or lose even one second, and exquisitely controlling individual particles of light (photons). NIST is the nation’s source for the most demanding measurements, standards, data, and tools, which enable U.S. companies and universities to lead the world in innovation and promote economic growth.

aerial view of the PML
Aerial view rendering of the expansion site at NIST Boulder.
©HDR Inc.

Technological advances depend on increasingly complex and difficult measurements. NIST Boulder researchers routinely measure dimensions on the nanoscale (the size of a few atoms). At these levels, even tiny fluctuations in temperature, humidity, air quality, and vibration can distort results. The existing lab facilities—more than 50 years old—cannot provide the required environmental controls. NIST Boulder research and measurement activities lose at least 20 percent in productivity because of inadequate laboratory conditions. The measurements and research needed to support future innovations will not be possible at all in the older labs.

The PML will enable NIST Boulder to fulfill its mission to address the nation’s measurement and research needs for the 21st century. The new laboratory will meet exacting requirements in vibration isolation, temperature and humidity control, air cleanliness, and electrical power quality. It will be on par with the top research facilities in the world and will add a unique new resource to the already rich scientific environment of the Boulder area.

Construction was started in late 2008 and is expected to be completed in early 2012.






Target Specifications
Total Square Feet about 37,000 net assignable square feet of instrument space and 8,000 square feet of class 100 cleanroom space
Temperature Control (labs) +/- 0.5 degrees F (+/- 0.25 degrees C)
Humidity Control +/- 5 percent humidity versus +/- 20 percent in older labs
Air Quality thousand-fold improvement over older labs, HEPA-filtered
Vibration Control velocity amplitude of 3 micrometers per second at 20 Hz to 100 Hz, about 15 times better than older labs


Expected Impacts

Improved environmental controls will enable NIST to grow more uniform versions of semiconductor nanowires, shown in this colorized micrograph.
NIST photo

When NIST Boulder was dedicated in 1954, the transistor had just been invented, and lasers did not yet exist. Most of the NIST Boulder laboratory buildings date from that era and are inadequate for today’s demanding research and measurement needs. The new PML facilities will offer much tighter control of environmental conditions and increase the total amount of NIST Boulder laboratory space by about one-third. A few examples of the benefits of the advanced lab space:

  • NIST will develop high-impact applications for tiny nanowire lasers based on semiconductors. Nanowire lasers operate in previously unavailable color ranges and can be used to make probes for detecting biochemical weapons or diagnosing cancer, among many other applications. Existing NIST labs produce wires that are tens of nanometers in diameter. High-impact applications require controlling the position of nanowires to within 20 nanometers, and diameter uniformity to better than 5 nanometers, which is impossible without the tighter controls on temperature and vibration in the new laboratory.

  • The PML will enable NIST researchers to consistently make high-speed measurements at frequencies above 100 gigahertz (GHz, one hundred billion cycles per second), as needed for advanced electronics, high-speed computing, and new radars and sensors. Currently, temperature drifts of even half a degree Celsius introduce so much jitter and other errors that measurements above about 50 GHz cannot be conducted at all, meaning that useful measurements can only be made one day a week on average in the existing labs.

  • NIST research on atomic clocks supports technologies crucial to U.S. economic security and defense, such as advanced navigation and positioning, high-speed telecommunications, and synchronization of many billions of dollars of financial transactions each day. As NIST scientists strive to make ever more precise atomic clocks, temperature drifts and vibrations cause major errors in the instruments. Research often must be conducted continuously for a week to obtain one hour of useful data.

  • NIST Boulder’s micro/nano fabrication facility produces unique devices for world-leading electrical standards, record-setting microsensors for homeland security, and components for quantum computers. Currently, as much as half of the nanoscale devices produced are unusable due to poor air cleanliness and temperature fluctuations during processing. The PML will provide a much more stable prototyping environment.

physicist Jim Bergquist
The new laboratory will support NIST’s world-leading research on atomic clocks, such as the mercury ion clock designed by physicist Jim Bergquist.
© Geoffrey Wheeler

NIST is committed to working with the local Boulder community to minimize disruptions during construction and to ensure the new laboratory fits well into the community and surroundings. NIST will use green building techniques whenever possible in the construction and operation of the new laboratory.

For further information, visit:

Contact: Kent Rochford, Technical Leader, NIST Boulder Laboratories (303) 497-5285