William Jeffrey leads cutting-edge technologies at NIST, garners ISA’s highest honor
By Jim Strothman
“We could see how well hydrogen was passing through a diaphragm. It turns out that humidity—just the right amount of moisture—is very important in getting efficiency gains. One manufacturer said they gained five years of progress using NIST’s lab.” —Jeffrey
Imagine a U.S. government agency, which, on average, generates a benefit-to-cost ratio of 44:1 to the U.S. economy. Yes, 19 retrospective studies of economic impact show there really is one—the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
For example, when General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, DuPont, and PlugPower wanted to make fuel cells they were developing more durable and efficient, all turned to the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR).
“They wanted to see what was going on inside their fuel cells when operating,” said Dr. William Jeffrey, who as NIST director oversees the hundreds of technical projects carried on by NIST and keeps members of the U.S. Senate and House appropriations, commerce, and science committees informed.
“If you look at a hydrogen fuel cell, it’s surrounded by metal,” he said. Unlike other imaging technologies (X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], etc.), neutrons pass through metal. “We could see how well hydrogen was passing through a diaphragm. It turns out that humidity—just the right amount of moisture—is very important in getting efficiency gains. One manufacturer said they gained five years of progress using NIST’s lab,” Jeffrey said.
The NCNR facility also undoubtedly saved pilots’ lives and multi-million-dollar airplanes by proving a U.S. Air Force hypothesis that a turbo blade being manufactured for use in jet engines was prone to cracking because the blade contained too much hydrogen.
“The propeller manufacturer was unable to measure hydrogen at low levels, but NCNR could. We were able to go back to the manufacturer and show exactly where the hydrogen was located in the blade, solving the problem,” Jeffrey said.
Since being nominated by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2005 as the 13th NIST Director, Jeffrey significantly increased NIST’s emphasis on developing instrumentation and metrology to support nanotechnology by creating the NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
“Estimates made by the National Science Board and private research groups suggest nanotechnology may be a 1 to 2 trillion dollar-a-year industry by 2016,” Jeffrey said. “Up to 15% of all manufactured goods will have nanotechnology,” he said. For example, nanotechnology is already used to make sunscreen lotions transparent, and fabrics, and metal baseball bats more durable, he said.
In recognition of Jeffrey’s vision and “contributions to the advancement of the arts and sciences of instrumentation, systems, and automation,” the Director of NIST has been elected an ISA Honorary Member—the highest honor bestowed by the society.
“Dr. William Jeffrey was selected as ISA’s 2007 Honorary Member for his lifetime commitment to advancing measurement science, standards, and technology that promote innovation, enhance industrial competitiveness and improve the quality of life,” said Bob Ives, chair of ISA’s Honorary Member Awards Committee.
“As the Director of NIST, Dr. Jeffrey leads approximately 2,900 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support personnel on programs that (1) conduct research at NIST laboratories, (2) manage the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program, (3) manage the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and (4) manage and co-fund the Advanced Technology Program with private industry to accelerate the development of innovative technologies,” Ives said. NIST has two primary locations, its Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters and Boulder, Colo.
Jeffrey said the award “is a great honor that really should be viewed as an award recognizing the excellent work being done in NIST. The entire NIST staff should be proud that their advancement of measurement science and standards is being recognized by such a prestigious group as ISA. It is also great to join the ranks of previous honorees who were NIST/NBS (National Bureau of Standards) Directors such as Allen Astin in 1960 and Ernie Ambler in 1989.”
Remote sensing expert
Holder of a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University and a B.S. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jeffrey sees “remote sensing” as a common thread linking his personal technical experience with several high-priority NIST projects, including neutron research, quantum science, climate change sciences, and other measurements related to global warming questions.
Earlier in his career, Jeffrey managed several high-tech federal programs and was immersed in shaping U.S. scientific policy. As assistant deputy for technology at the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, he oversaw remote sensor development for the Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, a task he described as “very satisfying,” since both became operational.
He also served as deputy director for the Advanced Technology Office and chief scientist for the Tactical Technology Office with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Just prior to being nominated by Bush to head NIST, he served as senior director for homeland security and assistant director for space and aeronautics at the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President—“primarily policy oriented” positions, Jeffrey said.
Measuring climate changes
NIST’s FY 2008 budget request of $640.7 million, which Jeffrey pitched to U.S. Congressional appropriations and oversight committees, includes increased spending to better measure how fast Earth’s climate is changing.
“Many different climate monitoring systems in space, in the air, and on the ground are currently monitoring solar output, as well as trapped and reflected heat by the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said. A problem, however, is “satellite data often don’t match” because of inconsistent calibrations. NIST hopes to help fix that in some existing satellites—and definitely in next-generation satellites yet to be launched—by establishing “absolute calibration and standard references that will allow accurate intercomparisons of these systems,” Jeffrey said. NIST also plans to develop techniques to generate specific types of aerosols in the laboratory, measuring aerosol optical and physical properties, stimulate aerosol properties that cannot yet be measured in a laboratory, and establish a database of critically evaluated data on aerosol properties collected at NIST and elsewhere.
Quantum science a ‘world changer’
Underscoring three NIST scientists have won Nobel Prizes in the last 10 years based on their work in quantum studies, Jeffrey views quantum mechanics as “the next disruptive technology in the measurements field.”
While today’s measuring devices, such as optical microscopes, have classical limits, “in the world of quantum mechanics, rules change,” the NIST director said. “The laws of physics that govern the quantum world of atoms, electronics, and light particles are fundamentally different. For example, a quantum particle can actually be in two different places simultaneously.”
His proposed FY 2008 initiative would accelerate research into, for example:
Quantum “wires” that use “teleportation” techniques to reliably transport information between components of a simple quantum computer
Quantum memory that allows more complex logic operations, analogous to random access memory of today’s computers
Quantum conversion processes that transfer information from one form of quantum information to another (for example, converting an atom’s quantum characteristics to a photon’s quantum characteristics)
Quantum-based measurement tools, such as optical clocks and single-electron counters Other planned FY 2008 increased efforts by NIST include working with other agencies to better predict natural disasters, such as high winds, storm surges, wildland fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, and also to better predict terrorist actions. A National Earthquake Hazards Reduction initiative, for example, would enhance the safety of new structures by developing better building-design standards.
“NIST and ISA have long shared the important goals of developing standards and technical information that promote innovation, enhance industrial productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life,” said ISA Executive Director and Chief Executive, Patrick Gouhin.
“Often, ISA and NIST work together. For example, NIST researchers have participated in, and led, ISA technical conferences. They have served on key ISA standards development committees in areas such as process composition analyzers, cyber security for industrial automation and control systems, and wireless systems for automation,” Gouhin said. “ISA technical leaders, likewise, have played vital roles in important NIST programs involving manufacturing processes, systems integration and interoperability, and sensors and control systems.”