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Brian Pragacz
Physics 110 Nanoscience
Frank Peiris
11 December, 2013
Applications of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy
Scanning tunneling microscopy is an imaging system based on the principles of
quantum particle tunneling. This phenomenon was first discovered in 1927 by Friedrich
Hund, and the idea to use this process for microscopic purposes was introduced by
Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in 1981 [2]. Not only does this technology provide a
method of imaging on the atomic level, scanning tunneling microscopy allows for the
manipulation of single atoms and molecules. The applications of this technology, for
imaging and otherwise, are vast and have enormous implications in the world of
While working for IBM in Zurich, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer developed
and built the first STM, for which they got the Nobel prize in 1986. While today the
technology behind this amazing device seems rather straightforward, this was one of
the first times modern quantum mechanics played a central role in a device.
Regardless of the uncertainty many had about these quantum mechanical processes,
Binnig and Rohrer put faith into Hunds research and built one of the most important
microscopes ever created.
As I have said before scanning tunneling microscopy works primarily on the
principles of tunneling and tunneling currents. The setup of these devices are fairly
simple; a tip is connected to a piezoelectric tube, allowing for movement of the tip. The
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piezoelectric tube is then connected to an ammeter, tunneling current amplifier, data
processing unit, and a power source, which has a lead to the sample. Imaging is done
when the tip is very close to the sample, somewhere on the order of single angstroms.
This is the regime in which electron tunneling occurs. Classically, electrons cannot flow
through a vacuum or high energy gaps, but quantum mechanically, it is possible for
them to jump or tunnel from one atom to another. The current can be given as
where I is the current, d is the distance between the tip and sample, and k is an
expression relating to the Schrdinger equation called the inverse decay length (this is
not important for the purposes of my paper and will be treated as a constant) [1]. We
can see from this expression that the ability for electrons to tunnel depends greatly on
the distance between the two objects involved in the tunneling.
Our ability to relate the tunneling current and the distance is instrumental in
scanning tunneling microscopy. Using this principle, the STM can image using one of
two modes: constant current or constant height. In constant height mode, the STM tip is
scanned across the sample at a set height and the change in current as the tip is moved
is measured. The computer analyzes the change in current as a function of position
and converts the information into a 3-dimensional image of the surface. With constant
current mode however, as the tip is being scanned across the sample, the
piezoelectrics move the tip up and down in the z direction in order to keep a set
tunneling current. In short, in constant height mode, the change in current is the varying
factor, as compared to constant current mode, where the change in height is measured.
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. In constant height
mode, for example, the tip can be extraordinarily close to the sample, allowing for very
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sensitive measurements. However, if the sample is not flat, or if there is a defect, the tip
may crash into an object, breaking it. In constant current mode, the tip is moved up and
down, maneuvering out of the way of obstacles, making it much more safe. The cost of
safety, as for anything, is possibly less interesting or resolved images [1].
Because of the preciseness with with we can measure these variables (the
current and distance between the tip and sample), we can make very accurate
measurements about these samples. Using scanning tunneling microscopy we can
create images with atomic resolution. For the first time, we were able to see individual
atoms. Of course, we are not looking at actual optical images, but rather we are
observing the effects of atomic forces involved in this system. This technology,
however, has far greater uses than just imaging atoms and surfaces; it can be used to
actually manipulate the atomic world. Using this technology we can create on a level
never before possible.
The Beginning
fig. 1
. This is an image of 35 individual xenon atoms, moved into
place using an STM, that spell out IBM. D. M. Eigler and E. K. Schweizer first published
this in nature in 1990. The implications of this was, and is, incredible. We now have the
ability to manipulate matter on a nanoscale level. This ability to move atoms can lead to
various and sundry technological advances, far beyond writing out words with atoms. I
will go more into these applications, but first, one must understand how we are able to
do this in the first place.
There are multiple ways to move atoms on a surface. The first method involves
the utilization of Van der Waal forces. This pulling mode allows for lateral movement
of atoms by creating weak chemical bonds between the atoms of the tip and the atom(s)
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or molecule that is being manipulated. This bond is formed by moving the tip very close
to the atom, creating a dipole interaction. The Van der Waal like interaction, which
occurs when the distance from the tip and atom is ~2 or less, allows for the utilization
of attractive forces between the tip and the atoms, where the pushing mode uses the
repulsive forces [3]. In pulling mode, the tip is brought extremely close behind
atom, then lowered to be on the same z-plane as the atom. Because the atom and tip
get so incredibly close, instead of attractive Van der Waal forces, the system exhibits
repulsive Pauli forces. This lets the operator move the atom by essentially pushing it to
a new location. There are many other methods, but pushing and pulling are the two
most straight-forward methods (as well as being the only two that I can explain within
the context of this course).
The next logical question is what can we do with this ability. One area in
particular that could profit from being able to manipulate atoms is computer science.
Currently, data is stored on a hard drive (or solid state drive) by magnetized atoms.
These magnetized atoms make up either a 1 or 0 bit in binary. In modern technology, it
takes roughly 1,000,000 atoms to create a bit. Using an STM, IBM was able to make a
single bit using only 12 atoms. This radical reduction in atoms could technically allow
for every movie ever made to be stored on a device the size of an iphone.
Obviously, there are issues with this storage system. To begin with, these bits
are only stable at low temperatures in a laboratory setting. And even at these
temperatures, and in these conditions, the bits were only stable for a few hours. This,
incidentally, is not terrible conducive for good computational devices. However, using

Behind as in opposite the desired direction of motion.
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larger numbers of atoms, roughly 150 (still MUCH fewer than the standard 1,000,000)
atoms, it is possible to make much more stable storage devices. IBM projects that
storage devices (hard drives, SSDs, etc.) could soon be 100 times more dense. While
this is no where near the same capacity that we would get if only 12 atoms were used,
this is still an incredible increase in capacity.
Atomic manipulation may also be able to be used in the creation of nanoscale
transistors. There is a law of computing called Moores Law. While this has technically
been broken, this states that the amount of transistors that we can fit on a single chip
will double every two years. The law was projected to break down because we would
be dealing with transistors that are just too small, and beyond our capability of creating.
Currently, we are able to fit roughly 2.3 billion transistors on a single chip. With the use
of a scanning tunneling microscope, however, it would seem that we will be able to
continue the trend.
In 2012, researchers at the University of South Wales in Sydney, Australia were
able to make a transistor using a single phosphorus atom. A phosphorus atom is only
0.1nm across, as compared to the latest transistors which are 32nm across -- a drastic
reduction in size. This unprecedented scale at which we are able to make a transistor
demonstrates another powerful piece of data that the STM has given us. Single-atom
transistors would mean reaching the physical limit of size reduction. If transistors can
be made out of a single atom on a large scale, this would mean the end of Moores law
as well as any other possible advancement in transistor size-reduction technology [5].
Like MBs 12 atom bit, this transistor can only exist in specific environments.
The phosphorus atom transistor was only stable at ~196 C. On top of that, similar to the
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bit, one must keep in mind that the creation of this transistor was only possible with the
use of an STM. This method of creating materials is certainly not practical or efficient.
Before we can even think about having processors that use phosphorus atoms as
transistors, a new method of making them must be created.
There are various other applications of scanning tunneling microscopy. STMs
can be used to determine electrochemical properties of samples and molecules by
observing the tunneling current to the distance between the tip and sample, then
comparing that data to other structures. We can also use STMs to build nanoscale
architecture, create quantum dots, observe standing electron waves, and, most
obviously, image samples with unparallelled precision. Despite all this, STMs
themselves have some major drawbacks.
Because of the sensitivity of these instruments, nearly any external vibration or
movement can disrupt the scanning. This includes everything from nearby vehicles, to
fans, to even a clumsy undergrad or intern falling over some wires. Scanning tunneling
microscopes are also incredibly slow. While they are very accurate, the scan rate is so
slow that real-time imaging is nearly impossible. Lastly, STMs must operate under
ultra-high vacuums and only work on conductive materials. This greatly reduces the
amount and type of samples that can be observed. This, however can sometimes be
fixed by applying certain metallic coatings to organic or non-metallic samples.
The development of the scanning tunneling microscope was one of the most
important breakthroughs in the world of nanoscience and nanoscale computing. For the
first time, we could see the structure molecules, atoms, and even standing electron
waves -- all things that were only described mathematically and theoretically before.
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Not only did it give us a window into the atomic world, the STM allowed us to touch and
build on a scale never before imagined. With this new technology we have to capability
of building storage devices out of 12 atoms, or even a transistor out of a single atom of
phosphorus. Our control over technology has never been so precise, and with this the
possibilities of future innovations are nearly endless.


Works Cited
[1]Binnig, G., and H. Rohrer. "Scanning Tunneling Microscopy."
Surface Science 126.1-3 (1983): 236-44. Print.
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[2]Baird, Davis, and Ashley Shew. "Probing the History of Scanning
Tunneling Microscopy." Discovering the Nanoscale, (2004): n. pag.
[3]Hla, Saw-Wai. "STM Single Atom/Molecule Manipulation and Its
Application to Nanoscience and Technology." J. Vac. Sci. Tech. in
Press (2005): n. pag. Print.
[4]Rockman, John. "A Model of a Scanning Tunneling Microscope."
(2007): n. pag. Web.
[5]Washburn, Sean. "Single Atoms as Transistors." Nature 357.6375
(1992): 199-200. Print.