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Tech Beat - September 27, 2011

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: September 27, 2011
Date Modified: September 27, 2011 
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In Unique Fire Tests, Outdoor Decks Will Be Under Firebrand Attack

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With its Dragon, seen in operation in this video clip, NIST aims to reduce the toll of wildfires.
Opening dragon graphic ©DVARG/Shutterstock.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will unleash its Dragon—a NIST invention that bellows showers of glowing embers, or firebrands—at a unique wind tunnel test facility in Japan, where researchers will evaluate the vulnerability of outdoor deck assemblies and materials to ignition during wildfires, a growing peril that accounts for half of the nation’s 10 most costly fires.

In a new report,* NIST researchers summarize suggestions for test designs and objectives offered by experts at a recent workshop convened in Los Angeles, Calif., with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and input from the Office of the California State Fire Marshal. This input is now being formalized into plans for experiments that will be conducted in early 2012 at Japan’s Building Research Institute (BRI) in Tsukuba.

There, NIST and Japanese researchers have merged two technologies, NIST’s Firebrand Generator (the “Dragon”) and BRI’s Fire Research Wind Tunnel Facility, which is devoted to studies of how wind influences fire. The combination gives them the singular capability to replicate a firebrand attack and expose structures to wind-driven showers of embers under experimentally controlled conditions.

The brain child of mechanical engineer Samuel Manzello, the NIST Dragon is a two-meter tall, goose-neck-shaped stove pipe that breathes in wood chips and exhales firebrands at a controlled rate. Manzello created the Dragon to support NIST’s program to better understand and prevent fires at the wildland-urban interface (WUI), with the ultimate aim of reducing property damage and human casualties.

Firebrands, or embers, are generated as vegetation and structures burn in WUI fires. Post-fire damage studies have suggested for some time that firebrands are a significant cause of structure ignition in WUI fires. However, prior firebrand research has focused on how far firebrands fly, known as spotting distance, and has not yielded definitive results to guide development of building codes and standards. 

In 2005, NIST began the cooperative research effort with BRI that ultimately led to the NIST Dragon becoming a permanent resident at BRI. NIST and BRI have used the combined facility to study the vulnerability of siding treatments, window glazing assemblies, and overhanging eaves to ignition during realistic firebrand showers. Results are shared with standards and regulatory bodies, insurers, and trade associations to inform their decisions on material and building requirements.

Another study examined the effectiveness of the standard wire mesh used to cover building vents on houses. Manzello and his team determined that the 6-millimeter (1/4-inch) spacing required in building codes were too porous to, and did not, prevent firebrands from igniting materials placed behind the mesh. Consequently, the California Code of Regulations was recently amended to require significantly smaller mesh sizes to cover vent openings.

Now, deck assemblies are slated to come under firebrand assaults from the NIST Dragon. Post-fire surveys conducted by NIST have documented that decks are vulnerable to ignition during wind-driven firebrand showers. However, codes and standards for decks have not been devised with detailed knowledge of the threat.

For example, in California, where wildland fires are an annual threat to many communities, the State Fire Marshal adapted an ASTM fire test designed for roofing materials to determine the response of deck materials to firebrand showers. The test entails placing a burning crib on top of a test deck and monitoring physical changes for a set period.

“It’s assumed that this test represents a worst-case firebrand shower scenario,” Manzello explains, “but no one knows for sure. The test does not simulate dynamic firebrand attack during a real wildland-urban interface fire. We are designing our full-scale tests to quantify the vulnerabilities and provide the basis for improvements in building codes.”

* S.L. Manzello and S. Suzuki. Summary of the 2011 Workshop on Research Needs for Full Scale Testing to Determine Vulnerabilities of Decking Assemblies to Ignition by Firebrand Showers. NIST Special Publication 1129, Aug. 2011.

Media Contact: Mark Bello, mark.bello@nist.gov, (301) 975-3776

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NIST Polishes Method for Creating Tiny Diamond Machines

Diamonds may be best known as a symbol of long-lasting love. But semiconductor makers are also hoping they'll pan out as key components of long-lasting micromachines if a new method developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for carving these tough, capable crystals proves its worth.* The method offers a precise way to engineer microscopic cuts in a diamond surface, yielding potential benefits in both measurement and technological fields.

NIST Polishes Method for Creating Tiny Diamond Machines 
This colorized electron microscope image reveals the boxy shape of the pits the NIST team etched into the diamond surface, exhibiting their smooth vertical sidewalls and flat bottom. The pits were between 1 and 72 micrometers in size.
Credit: NIST
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By combining their own observations with background gleaned from materials science, NIST semiconductor researchers have found a way to create unique features in diamond—potentially leading to improvements in nanometrology in short order, as it has allowed the team to make holes of precise shape in one of the hardest known substances. But beyond the creation of virtually indestructible nanorulers, the method could one day lead to the improvement of a class of electronic devices useful in cell phones, gyroscopes and medical implants.

Well known for making the hugely complex electronic microchips that run our laptops, the semiconductor industry has expanded its portfolio by fabricating tiny devices with moving parts. Constructed with substantially the same techniques as the electronic chips, these “micro-electromechanical systems,” or MEMS, are just a few micrometers in size. They can detect environmental changes such as heat, pressure and acceleration, potentially enabling them to form the basis of tiny sensors and actuators for a host of new devices. But designers must take care that tiny moving parts do not grind to a disastrous halt. One way to make the sliding parts last longer without breaking down is to make them from a tougher material than silicon.

“Diamond may be the ideal substance for MEMS devices,” says NIST’s Craig McGray. “It can withstand extreme conditions, plus it’s able to vibrate at the very high frequencies that new consumer electronics demand. But it’s very hard, of course, and there hasn’t been a way to engineer it very precisely at small scales. We think our method can accomplish that.”

The method uses a chemical etching process to create cavities in the diamond surface. The cubic shape of a diamond crystal can be sliced in several ways—a fact jewelers take advantage of when creating facets on gemstones. The speed of the etching process depends on the orientation of the slice, occurring at a far slower rate in the direction of the cube’s “faces”—think of chopping the cube into smaller cubes—and these face planes can be used as a sort of boundary where etching can be made to stop when desired. In their initial experiments, the team created cavities ranging in width from 1 to 72 micrometers, each with smooth vertical sidewalls and a flat bottom.

“We’d like to figure out how to optimize control of this process next,” McGray says, “but some of the ways diamond behaved under the conditions we used were unexpected. We plan to explore some of these mysteries while we develop a prototype diamond MEMS device.”

* C.D. McGray, R.A. Allen, M. Cangemi and J. Geist. Rectangular scale-similar etch pits in monocrystalline diamond. Diamond and Related Materials. Available online 22 August 2011, ISSN 0925-9635, 10.1016/j.diamond.2011.08.007.

Media Contact: Chad Boutin, boutin@nist.gov, (301) 975-4261

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Metric Week Begins October 9!

Counting the seconds until Metric Week (Oct. 9-15, 2011) begins? That’s the spirit! Seconds are the metric unit of time. You also could figure your distance in meters (the metric unit of length) from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) labs in Gaithersburg, Md., where it’s metric all year round.

This year marks the 35th annual celebration of Metric Week. Metric Week was begun by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics on May 10, 1976, approximately one year after the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. Now held the tenth day of the tenth month, Metric Week serves as an opportunity for teachers, students and the public to learn about the metric system, also known as the international system of units, or SI for short.

The U.S. government has adopted SI, long the standard measurement system of science and engineering, as the preferred system of weights and measures for commerce and industry. Based on units of 10, SI is very easy to learn, and many Americans know it better than they think. Many products, from bottled drinks to medicines to the nutritional values posted on cereal boxes many people read every morning, already are sold and conversed about in terms of their metric measures.

Being conversant in metric is essential for those seeking careers in science and engineering. "SI knowledge, skills and abilities are essential for students as they pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers," says Elizabeth Gentry, a metric coordinator at NIST. "Developing proficiency in metric measurements will prepare U.S. students to work with cutting-edge technology and develop innovative consumer products of the future."

This year, representatives from the NIST Metric Program will be celebrating Metric Week with more than 4,000 students and teachers at the Science and Technology Education Partnership (STEP) conference in Riverside, Calif., Oct. 25-26. Teachers and students who are interested in learning more about SI may download a variety of educational materials from NIST:


Teachers can also request a classroom set of SI educational materials by submitting their contact information and grade level to TheSI@nist.gov.

More information about Metric Week can be found at these sites:



Media Contact: Mark Esser, mark.esser@nist.gov, (301) 975-8735

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Comprehensive Risk Assessment Guidance for Federal Information Systems Published

Risk assessment is the topic of the newest special publication from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments (NIST Special Publication 800-30, Revision 1), an extensive update to its original 2002 publication, is the authoritative source of comprehensive risk assessment guidance for federal information systems, and is open for public comments through November 4.

"Risk assessments can help federal agencies effectively evaluate the current threat, organizational and information system vulnerabilities, potential adverse impacts to core missions and business operations—using the results to determine appropriate risk responses," said NIST Fellow Ron Ross.

Overall guidance on risk management for information systems is now covered in Managing Information Security Risk: Organization, Mission, and Information System View (NIST SP 800-39), issued last March.* The updated SP 800-30 now focuses exclusively on risk assessments, one of the four steps in risk management, says Ross.

As threats to computer systems grow more complex and sophisticated, risk assessments are an important tool for organizations to rely on as part of a comprehensive risk management program Ross explains. Risk assessments help organizations:

  • determine the most appropriate risk responses to ongoing cyber attacks or threats stemming from man-made or natural disasters;
  • guide investment strategies and decisions for the most effective cyber defenses to help protect organizational operations (including missions, functions, image and reputation), organizational assets, individuals, other organizations and the nation; and
  • maintain ongoing situational awareness of the security state of an organization's information systems and the environments in which those systems operate.

The guidance in the revised publication has been significantly expanded to include more information on a variety of risk factors essential to determining information security risk, such as threat sources and events, vulnerabilities and predisposing conditions, impact, and likelihood of threat occurrence. The publication describes a three-step process to help organizations prepare for risk assessments, successfully conduct risk assessments and keep assessment results up to date.

Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments also describes how to apply the risk assessment process at the three tiers of the risk management hierarchy outlined in Special Publication 800-39. Sample templates, tables and assessment scales for common risk factors are provided for users to adapt to their own organizational risk assessments based on the purpose, scope, assumptions, and constraints of the assessments.

Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments is the fifth guideline developed for the unified information security framework under the direction of the Joint Task Force, a joint partnership among the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, NIST and the Committee on National Security Systems. The task force will continue to collaborate on protecting federal information systems and the nation's critical information infrastructure.

Guide for Conducting Risk Assessments (Special Publication 800-30, Revision 1) may be downloaded from: http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/drafts/800-30-rev1/SP800-30-Rev1-ipd.pdf. Please send comments to sec-cert@nist.gov by Nov. 4.

* Managing Information Security Risk: Organization, Mission, and Information System View (NIST SP 800-39) is available online at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/nistpubs/800-39/SP800-39-final.pdf.

Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, evelyn.brown@nist.gov, 301-975-5661

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New Baldrige Book Helps Organizations Gain 20/20 Foresight

While most of us would say that hindsight is 20/20, the folks at the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program believe just the opposite for organizations that want to survive and thrive now, and for years to come. To share the keys to 20/20 foresight—the ability to establish a path for future success, track progress throughout the journey and adjust course as challenges arise—the Baldrige Program has published Baldrige 20/20: An Executive’s Guide to the Criteria for Performance Excellence

The 132-page book showcases strategies, results and experiences from past winners of the Baldrige National Quality Award who have used the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence to achieve breakthrough performance, innovation and sustainability. It describes how the criteria have been used to foster organizational alignment and operational efficiency, achieve better financial results, satisfy and engage customers and workforce, and innovate and improve products and services. The organizations featured in the book represent a wide range of sectors, including small and large business, education, health care, local government and the military.

Baldrige 20/20 was designed to inspire organizations to emulate these role models and hopefully, replicate their success,” says Harry Hertz, director of the Baldrige program. “We want this book to help organizations face the future with confidence, strategy and structure.”

A free Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) version of Baldrige 20/20 may be downloaded from the Baldrige program Web site at www.nist.gov/baldrige. A printed copy may be purchased for $13 from the American Society for Quality by requesting Item T1537 at (800) 248-1946 or http://asq.org/quality-press.

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, (301) 975-3025

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Three NIST Scientists Receive PECASE Honors

Three researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will receive the 2010 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the White House announced on Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent research careers. Winners receive up to a five-year research grant to further their study in support of critical government missions.

The scientists are recognized not only for their innovative research, but also their demonstrated commitment to community service.

  • Chemical engineer Jeffrey Fagan received the honor for pioneering breakthroughs in the separation of single wall carbon nanotubes by key characteristics such as length, for measurements of their unique properties, and for leadership in translating these achievements into international standards.
  • Physicist Kartik Srinivasan was awarded for developing measurement methods aimed at probing the nature of strong light-matter interactions in semiconductor optical cavities with unparalleled sensitivity and for developing processes to fabricate low-loss, on-chip, nanophotonic devices.
  • Physicist Jacob Taylor was selected for his pioneering, world-class research on quantum fault tolerance and on the dynamic properties of quantum information devices; and for his commitment to providing educational and research experiences to graduate students.


For further information, see the Sept. 26, 2011, news announcement, “President Obama Honors Outstanding Early-Career Scientists” at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/26/president-obama-honors-outstanding-early-career-scientists.

Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo, jennifer.huergo@nist.gov, (301) 975-6343

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