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We provide new bounds on the interfacial barrier conductivity for isotropic particulate composites based on measured values of effective properties, known values of component volume fractions, and the formation factor for the matrix phase. These bounds are found to be sharp. Our tool is a new set of variational principles and bounds on the effective properties of composites with imperfect interface obtained by us [see R. Lipton and B. Vernescu, Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. A 452, 329 (1996)]. We apply the bounds to solve inverse problems. For isotropic polydisperse suspensions of spheres we are able to characterize the size distribution of the spherical inclusions based on measured values of the effective conductivity. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.