Atomic Force Microscopy

Since the introduction of the Nobel Prize-winning scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and then the invention of the atomic force microscopy (AFM) from the landmark publication by Binnig, Quate, and Gerber, the field of scanning probe microscopy has exploded well beyond using interatomic forces to image topography on the nanometer scale. The ability to measure intermolecular forces and see atoms is scientifically tantalizing.

Topography imaging alone does not always provide the answers that researchers need and the surface topology often does not correlate to the material properties. For these reasons, advanced imaging modes have been developed to provide quantitative data on a variety of surfaces. Now, many material properties can be determined with AFM techniques, including friction, electrical forces, capacitance, magnetic forces, conductivity, viscoelasticity, surface potential, and resistance.

Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

The development of the family of scanning probe microscopes started with the original invention of the STM in 1981. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer developed the first working STM while working at IBM Zurich Research Laboratories in Switzerland. This instrument would later win Binnig and Rohrer the Nobel prize in physics in 1986.

Atomic Force Microscopy

The atomic force microscope (AFM) was developed to overcome a basic drawback with STM – it can only image conducting or semiconducting surfaces. The AFM has the advantage of imaging almost any type of surface, including polymers, ceramics, composites, glass, and biological samples.

Binnig, Quate, and Gerber invented the AFM in 1985. Their original AFM consisted of a diamond shard attached to a strip of gold foil. The diamond tip contacted the surface directly, with the interatomic van der Waals forces providing the interaction mechanism. Detection of the cantilever’s vertical movement was done with a second tip – an STM placed above the cantilever.

How an Atomic Force Microscope works

Analogous to how an Scanning Tunneling Microscope works, a sharp tip is raster-scanned over a surface using a feedback loop to adjust parameters needed to image a surface. Unlike Scanning Tunneling Microscopes, the Atomic Force Microscope does not need a conducting sample. Instead of using the quantum mechanical effect of tunneling, atomic forces are used to map the tip-sample interaction.

Often referred to as scanning probe microscopy (SPM), there are Atomic Force Microscopy techniques for almost any measurable force interaction – van der Waals, electrical, magnetic, thermal. For some of the more specialized techniques, modified tips and software adjustments are needed.

In addition to Angstrom-level positioning and feedback loop control, there are 2 components typically included in Atomic Force Microscopy: Deflection and Force Measurement.

AFM Probe Deflection

Traditionally, most Atomic Force Microscopes use a laser beam deflection system where a laser is reflected from the back of the reflective AFM lever and onto a position-sensitive detector. AFM tips and cantilevers are typically micro-fabricated from Si or Si3N4. Typical tip radius is from a few to 10s of nm.

Graph showing the laser and the position detector
Laser beam deflection for atomic force microscopes

Measuring Forces

Because the Atomic Force Microscope relies on the forces between the tip and sample, these forces impact AFM imaging. The force is not measured directly, but calculated by measuring the deflection of the lever, knowing the stiffness of the cantilever.

Hooke’s law gives:

F = -kz

where F is the force, k is the stiffness of the lever, and z is the distance the lever is bent.

Graph showing force on the y-axis and the Probe Distance from Sample on the x-axis
Force-distance curve for Atomic Force Microscopes

Feedback Loop for Atomic Force Microscopy

Atomic Force Microscopy has a feedback loop using the laser deflection to control the force and tip position. As shown, a laser is reflected from the back of a cantilever that includes the AFM tip. As the tip interacts with the surface, the laser position on the photodetector is used in the feedback loop to track the surface for imaging and measuring.

Schmetaic showing the photo detector, laser and probe
Schematic for contact mode Atomic Force Microscopy