Here are some unusual things you can buy from the federal government:
- Urban dust
- New Jersey soil
- Domestic sludge
- Lake Michigan fish tissue
- Lake Superior fish tissue
- Chrorinated pesticides
- Bullet replicas
- Organic contaminants from both smokers’ and non-smokers’ urine
- Iron-Chromium-Nickel alloy
- Whale blubber
- Fortified breakfast cereal
- Lead paint
- Yerba mate
- Wheat kernels at varying levels of hardness
- Oil extracted from beach sand following the Deepwater Horizon spill
- Meat homogenate (Spam)
- Peanut butter, complete with a material safety data sheet noting that it’s not hazardous
They’re all standard reference materials produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, and they illuminate the way that measurement standards are handed down from fundamental units like the meter and the ampere, which are based on low-level physical constants, to practical artifacts that anyone can use to calibrate a bathroom scale or detect impurities in molybdenum oxide.
The breadth and complexity of the standard reference materials catalogue is a testament to the breadth and complexity of the modern economy; the manufacturing process for just about everything we use or consume has at least one thread back to Planck’s constant that goes through NIST.
In this podcast episode, I interview Steven Choquette, director of the Office of Reference Materials at NIST. He’s responsible for more than 1,300 reference materials, and I’ve been wanting to talk with him since 2015, when I was wandering around NIST’s headquarters looking for kilogram prototypes and came across a vial of standard reference peanut butter.
Join us at The Digital Factory, an executive summit for manufacturing leaders, in Boston on May 7, 2019. The program is co-hosted by Jeff Immelt; speakers include the CEOs of Align Technologies, Spirit AeroSystems, Formlabs, and Desktop Metal; the CIOs of FedEx and Baker Hughes, the CTO of GE, and the head of manufacturing of Ford Motor. The Formlabs User Summit takes place the next day, featuring solutions, connections, and inspiration from people working at the leading edge of 3D printing.
What separates NIST’s urban dust, New Jersey soil, and domestic sludge from the stuff you find in Secaucus is that it’s been characterized at extremely high levels of accuracy and precision. (“Our value added is that we NIST it to death,” says Choquette.) They’re used by academic and commercial laboratories to calibrate sophisticated instruments and validate measurement methods.
NIST has begun to introduce standard reference biological materials, beginning with a massive monoclonal antibody (“the most highly characterized protein biologic in the world”). That entails a subtle but important shift in the way NIST thinks about reference standards. Whereas traditional materials like boric acid are straightforward to standardize directly in terms of molecular composition, the salient facts of these biological materials have to do with the cells that synthesize them. “What would be really useful...would be to have a cell that produces the NIST monoclonal antibody,” says Choquette. “Is there such a thing as a standard cell? We’re not sure.”
🔨Steven’s favorite tools:
- A currycomb that he uses to groom his horses as a meditative transition from the end of the workday
- Taps and dies, from his time as a front-line lab researcher