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Tech Beat - July 28, 2015

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: June 23, 2010
Date Modified: August 26, 2015 

Not Schrödinger’s Cat: NIST PET Phantoms Bring New Accuracy to Medical Scans

Teaming with a medical equipment company, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated the first calibration system for positron emission tomography (PET) scanners directly tied to national measurement standards. Better calibrations of the machines potentially can increase the accuracy of their diagnostic images by several times, according to NIST scientists. 

NIST has developed a technique to calibrate the “phantoms” that provide a daily benchmark for PET scanner sensitivity. The resulting phantoms will be the first ones commercially available for PET that can trace calibration directly to NIST standards.

Credit: Bergeron/NIST
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The new calibration capability can be used to fine-tune PET scanners that find cancers and track the progress of treatments, among other diagnostic applications. It will be used to ensure the accuracy of some of the newest scanners on the market. 

NIST’s technique, developed over the past few years, is used to calibrate devices called “phantoms,” built specifically for PET scanners. Phantoms are commonly used to check medical imaging devices such as X-ray scanners. Typically, they are simply blocks of materials known to respond to—for example—X-rays in a consistent, known manner that’s similar to the way human tissues respond. PET phantoms are more complicated because the scanners work by detecting radioactive materials injected in the patient. 

The PET phantoms are lightweight hollow cylinders about the size of a two-liter soda bottle. They contain a small amount of radioactive germanium, which glows brightly in a PET scanner’s readout. Measuring its brightness each day provides a benchmark for scanner sensitivity that allows medical technicians to compare patient scans taken on different days more effectively. 

The phantoms will be the first ones commercially available for PET that can trace calibration directly to NIST standards. The NIST team’s method measures the phantom’s germanium content directly, eliminating some known sources of error. The phantoms are designed specifically for scanners that combine PET and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). PET and MRI are potentially an ideal combination for diagnosis because PET reveals spots where cancer likely exists, and MRI provides the basic picture of a patient’s body so the PET scan can be oriented precisely. (This basic picture is usually provided by X-ray computed tomography, also known as a CAT [computerized axial tomography] scan, but MRI does not use radiation, while CAT does.) 

NIST developed the calibration method partly in response to a request by Sanders Medical Products, which supplies the phantoms to GE Healthcare, a manufacturer of combination PET-MRI scanners. A Sanders phantom will ship with every new scanner of this type that GE builds. Brian Zimmerman, part of the NIST group that developed the method, says that the team is working on calibrating two more commercial phantom designs for Sanders that will be used with other types of clinical PET scanners. Together, the increased availability of NIST measurement traceability for clinical use could help save time and money for patients as well as drug companies, he says. 

“Doctors are realizing putting effort into this kind of quantitative work can reveal differences of 5 percent in tumor size, rather than the 20 percent they look for now,” Zimmerman says. “It might help them to make decisions more quickly concerning whether a treatment or a clinical trial is working out.”

Media Contact: Chad Boutin,, 301-975-4261

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Gaily Tread the [Quantum] Measure

Since quantum theory has been known to borrow from the arts—Murray Gell-Mann famously named "quarks" after a line from James Joyce—it's only fitting that quantum physics, in return, has been inspiring artists and composers. Poetry, paintings, art installations, music and, yes, dance, have been inspired by the new physics and its weird, counterintuitive principles.

Dunamis Novem by Sam Mitchell.

Now, Ray Simmonds, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) where quantum theory drives much of the physics research, and Sam Mitchell, a graduate student in fine arts at the University of California, San Diego, have collaborated on a modern dance piece celebrating the central role of chance in the quantum world.

The individual movements of Mitchell's Dunamis Novem (Latin for the chance happening of nine things), are based on the quantized energy levels of a harmonic oscillator—like the microscopic drum in Simmonds' NIST lab that has been used to demonstrate quantum phenomena in a mechanical device.

Become entangled in Dunamis Novem, see the moves and more at the NIST science feature "What Is Quantum Physics? Dancers Explain."

Media Contact: Laura Ost,, 303-497-4880

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NIST to Host First App Challenge to Improve Data Access

Researchers looking for information on the properties of methane at high temperatures or the isotopic composition of an element know they can rely on standard reference data from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But what they really need is an app (or apps)to make the data more accessible.


As a step in that direction, NIST is launching its first app challenge. Prizes totaling $45,000 can go to developers who create applications that offer new ways to access and use data from one or more of six eligible scientific data collections maintained by NIST.

NIST maintains some of the world's most accurate and comprehensive datasets of physical, material, chemical and biological data covering a broad range of substances and properties. These datasets are invaluable research tools for physicists, biochemical engineers, environmental researchers, students and many others. The app challenge is meant to boost awareness of these resources and modernize their use.

To support the challenge, NIST has made six of its datasets available in machine-readable format. The contest is open to U.S. citizens or permanent residents over the age of 18.

Challenge participants must make the app available for testing at no cost to NIST, and it must be accompanied by a brief text submission, at least one screenshot of the app, and a brief (less than five minute) video describing the functionality of the app. Entries are due by Sept.28, 2015.

NIST experts will vet technical aspects of the apps and a group of judges will evaluate submissions to identify the best. The criteria for judging will be the app's potential impact, its creativity and innovation, how well it is implemented, and the integration of one or more SRD or other data into the app.

The six eligible NIST Standard Reference Datasets to be used in the challenge are:

The Reference Data Challenge follows NIST's first participation in the National Day of Civic Hacking, held June 6, 2015, in which NIST invited coders from across the U.S. to play with a subset of its Standard Reference Data.

The challenge also complements NIST's ongoing efforts to ensure its data and research results are publicly accessible. On July 8, 2015, NIST released a new data access plan and is asking the public for feedback to help guide its policies and procedures.

For detailed information on the NIST Reference Data Challenge, visit View the Federal Register notice here.

Media Contact: Jennifer Huergo,, 301-975-6343

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NIST Shows Organic Solar Industry Something New Under the Sun

Hunting for the best material from which to build organic solar cells can be like seeking the proverbial haystack needle, but now scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Naval Research Laboratory may have a better search tool for the nascent industry.

Organic materials are attractive to the solar industry because of their comparative low cost and physical flexibility. NIST findings reveal how to test a candidate organic material's viability at converting light to electricity both quickly and directly.
Credit: Cappello/Georgia Tech, Courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab View hi-resolution image

The team's research findings in Nature Communications* show it is possible to test a candidate material quickly and directly, using off-the-shelf laser technology. The method bypasses the costly, time-consuming step of constructing a prototype solar cell for each material to be evaluated. 

"We'd like to give companies and manufacturers an alternative to trial and error," says NIST research chemist Ted Heilweil. "It takes a long time to develop photovoltaic materials for market. Screening them using our method would be much faster."

Organic materials (e.g. plastics) hold a particular attraction for the solar industry, largely because of their comparative low cost and physical flexibility. Organics inspire the possibility of one day painting an inexpensive solar array onto most any surface, even one that bends and moves, and simply replacing it with a fresh coat when it wears out. 

At this point, organics are far less efficient at converting sunlight to electricity than traditional silicon-based technology, but ideas for better materials come at a fast clip. Unfortunately, sifting through these candidates and zeroing in on the most promising ones is expensive and arduous. Because it entails building a prototype cell for each prospective material, relatively few candidates get tested. 

The team's new method sidesteps this problem by using ultrafast lasers to probe a candidate material's abilities directly—and without electrical contacts. They found that when shining pulses of visible light onto a sample to mimic the sun, they could probe the sample's electronic behavior with a second laser pulse near the microwave range of the spectrum. When the sample absorbs these "terahertz" waves, its properties change in easily detectable ways. Just how the terahertz pulse changes is dependent on the material's viability at converting light to electricity.

To test their method, the team looked at a number of mixed organic molecules and polymers whose abilities were well-understood from conventional prototyping.

"We looked at small organics and polymers that people in the solar industry have been using as benchmarks, and we saw the same relative behavior with our terahertz measurements," Heilweil says. "We're pretty confident that our method can tell you what is useful to know."

The team is using the method as part of its own ongoing materials search, Heilweil says. 

* P. A. Lane, P. D. Cunningham, J. S. Melinger, O. Esenturk and E. J. Heilweil. Hot photocarrier dynamics in organic solar cells. Nature Communications, 6. Article 7558.Published online July 16, 2015. DOI:10.1038/ncomms8558


Media Contact: Chad Boutin,, 301-975-4261

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NIST Calculates High Cost of Hydrogen Pipelines, Shows How to Reduce It

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has put firm numbers on the high costs of installing pipelines to transport hydrogen fuel—and also found a way to reduce those costs.

Testing hydsrogen pipeline steel
Samples of pipeline steel instrumented for fatigue testing in a pressurized hydrogen chamber (the vertical tube). NIST researchers used data from such tests to develop a model for hydrogen effects on pipeline lifetime, to support a federal effort to reduce overall costs of hydrogen fuel.
Credit: NIST
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Pipelines to carry hydrogen cost more than other gas pipelines because of the measures required to combat the damage hydrogen does to steel’s mechanical properties over time. NIST researchers calculated that hydrogen-specific steel pipelines can cost as much as 68 percent more than natural gas pipelines, depending on pipe diameter and operating pressure.* By contrast, a widely used cost model** suggests a cost penalty of only about 10 percent.

But the good news, according to the new NIST study, is that hydrogen transport costs could be reduced for most pipeline sizes and pressures by modifying industry codes*** to allow the use of a higher-strength grade of steel alloy without requiring thicker pipe walls. The stronger steel is more expensive, but dropping the requirement for thicker walls would reduce materials use and related welding and labor costs, resulting in a net cost reduction. The code modifications, which NIST has proposed to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), would not lower pipeline performance or safety, the NIST authors say.

"The cost savings comes from using less—because of thinner walls—of the more expensive material," says NIST materials scientist James Fekete, a co-author of the study. "The current code does not allow you to reduce thickness when using higher-strength material, so costs would increase. With the proposed code, in most cases, you can get a net savings with a thinner pipe wall, because the net reduction in material exceeds the higher cost per unit weight."

The NIST study is part of a federal effort to reduce the overall costs of hydrogen fuel, which is renewable, nontoxic and produces no harmful emissions. Much of the cost is for distribution, which likely would be most economical by pipeline. The U.S. contains more than 300,000 miles of pipelines for natural gas but very little customized for hydrogen. Existing codes for hydrogen pipelines are based on decades-old data. NIST researchers are studying hydrogen’s effects on steel to find ways to reduce pipeline costs without compromising safety or performance.

As an example, the new code would allow a 24-inch pipe made of high-strength X70 steel to be manufactured with a thickness of 0.375 inches for transporting hydrogen gas at 1500 pounds per square inch (psi). (In line with industry practice, ASME pipeline standards are expressed in customary units.) According to the new NIST study, this would reduce costs by 31 percent compared to the baseline X52 steel with a thickness of 0.562 inches, as required by the current code. In addition, thanks to its higher strength, X70 would make it possible to safely transport hydrogen through bigger pipelines at higher pressure (36-inch diameter pipe to transport hydrogen at 1500 psi) than is allowed with X52, enabling transport and storage of greater fuel volumes. This diameter-pressure combination is not possible under the current code.

The proposed code modifications were developed through research into the fatigue properties of high-strength steel at NIST’s Hydrogen Pipeline Material Testing Facility. In actual use, pipelines are subjected to cycles of pressurization at stresses far below the failure point, but high enough to result in fatigue damage. Unfortunately, it is difficult and expensive to determine steel fatigue properties in pressurized hydrogen. As a result, industry has historically used tension testing data as the basis for pipeline design, and higher-strength steels lose ductility in such tests in pressurized hydrogen. But this type of testing, which involves steadily increasing stress to the failure point, does not predict fatigue performance in hydrogen pipeline materials, Fekete says.

NIST research has shown that under realistic conditions, steel alloys with higher strengths (such as X70) do not have higher fatigue crack growth rates than lower grades (X52). The data have been used to develop a model**** for hydrogen effects on pipeline steel fatigue crack growth, which can predict pipeline lifetime based on operating conditions.

The studies at NIST’s hydrogen test facility were supported by the Department of Energy and Department of Transportation.

* J.W. Sowards, J.R. Fekete and R.L. Amaro. Economic impact of applying high strength steels in hydrogen gas pipelines. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. 2015. In press, corrected proof available online. DOI:10.1016/j.ijhydene.2015.06.090

** DOE H2A Delivery Analysis. U.S. Department of Energy. Available online at

*** ASME B31.12 Hydrogen Piping and Pipeline Code (ASME B31.12). Industry groups such as ASME commonly rely on NIST data in developing codes.

**** R.L. Amaro, N. Rustagi, K.O. Findley, E.S. Drexler and A.J. Slifka. Modeling the fatigue crack growth of X100 pipeline steel in gaseous hydrogen. Int. J. Fatigue, 59 (2014). pp 262-271.

Media Contact: Laura Ost,, 303-497-4880

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Baldrige Helps Health Care Organizations Provide Superior Patient Experience

A newly released study* comparing 34 U.S. health care organizations that received the Baldrige National Quality Award with their 153 geographically closest competitors found that the Baldrige Award recipients matched or exceeded their competitors’ measures of health care quality and outperformed them in measures of favorable patient experience.

The study, conducted by Ron Schulingkamp of Loyola University New Orleans and John R. Latham of Leadership Plus Design Ltd. (Monument, Colo.), appears in the latest issue of Quality Management Journal (QMJ), a peer-reviewed publication of the American Society for Quality (ASQ).

Schulingkamp and Latham examined results data for 39 measures that U.S. hospitals publicly report to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The 39 measures include 23 for health care processes, 10 for patient experience and six for outcomes of health care provided. The patient-experience results data come from Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Services (HCAHPS) surveys of patients.

The study included all organizations in the health care sector that received the Baldrige Award, the nation’s highest honor recognizing organizational performance excellence and innovation, between 2002 and 2011. (U.S. health care organizations became eligible to apply for the Baldrige Award in 1999, with the first health care honoree, SSM Health Care, named in 2002.) The study’s comparison group included all competing hospitals within a 25- to 50-mile radius of the Baldrige Award winners.

“The HCAHPS patient survey results were the most significant findings in this study,” Schulingkamp and Latham state in their paper. “Hospitals that used the [Baldrige Health Care Criteria for Performance Excellence, abbreviated by the study authors as HCPE] had higher means and lower standard deviations [indicating a measurable positive patient experience] than the non-HCPE hospitals in all 10 measures.” The authors also report that the differences were statistically significant for nine of those 10 measures, showing that there is a definite positive impact on patient experience with use of the criteria.

“These results add to the growing evidence that the HCPE are a valid framework to align organizational design, strategy, systems, and human capital to create long-term effectiveness in an institutionalized high-performance culture,” the authors noted. They also remarked that the criteria provide a systems approach “to excellence as the patient sees it.”

According to Schulingkamp and Latham, better management of the patient experience using the Baldrige framework yields additional benefits for a health care organization. They report that favorable patient experience as measured by patients who “would definitely recommend the hospital” has been linked to repeat and referral business and, in turn, financial performance. 

Finally, Schulingkamp and Latham feel that their findings have important implications for the future of health care in the United States. “The results of this study help validate the effectiveness of the [Baldrige Health Care Criteria] as a framework to achieve performance excellence and meet the continuously increasing stakeholder requirements related to value,” they say. They suggest that the criteria provide “an effective framework for transforming an organization to address the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and CMS changes to healthcare.” 

The Baldrige Health Care Criteria for Performance Excellence, part of the Baldrige Excellence Framework, are revised every two years by the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. Copies of the 2015–2016 Baldrige Excellence Framework (Health Care), which includes the criteria, are available for purchase on the Baldrige Program website.

A single free copy of the subscriber-only access QMJ article is available upon request to members of the media via the contact listed with this article.

*R.C. Schulingkamp and J.R. Latham. Healthcare Performance Excellence: A Comparison of Baldrige Award Recipients and Competitors. Quality Management Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2015).

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman,, 301-975-3025

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NIST Hosts September Meeting on Protecting Health Info Through HIPAA Security

HIPAA conference logoThe National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is hosting “Safeguarding Health Information: Building Assurance through HIPAA Security-2015,” September 2-3, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The meeting is the eighth in an annual series, and is co-hosted by the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The conference will examine the present state of health information technology security as it applies to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and provides practical strategies, tips and techniques for implementing the HIPAA Security Rule. 

The Security Rule sets federal standards to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of electronic protected health information by requiring HIPAA-covered entities and their business associates to implement and maintain administrative, physical and technical safeguards. 

Presentations will cover a variety of security management and technical assurance topics including updates on the Omnibus HIPAA/HITECH Final Rule, breach management, business associate liability, managing third party risk and securing medical devices. 

Participants have the option of attending the meeting in person at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., or via webcast. 

For more information and to register, visit the HIPAA Security-2015 event page.

Media Contact: Evelyn Brown,, 301-975-5661

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