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Atomic-force microscopy

Atomic-force microscopy (AFM) or scanning-force Atomic-force microscopy (AFM) or scanning-force

Microscopy (SFM) is a very-high-resolution type of microscopy (SFM) is a type of scanning probe mi-
scanning probe microscopy (SPM), with demonstrated croscopy (SPM), with demonstrated resolution on the or-
resolution on the order of fractions of a nanometer, more der of fractions of a nanometer, more than 1000 times
than 1000 times better than the optical diraction limit. better than the optical diraction limit. The information
is gathered by feeling or touching the surface with a
mechanical probe. Piezoelectric elements that facilitate
tiny but accurate and precise movements on (electronic)
command enable very precise scanning.

1.1 Abilities

The AFM has three major abilities: force measurement,

imaging, and manipulation.
In force measurement, AFMs can be used to measure the
forces between the probe and the sample as a function of
their mutual separation. This can be applied to perform
force spectroscopy.
For imaging, the reaction of the probe to the forces that
An atomic-force microscope on the left with controlling computer the sample imposes on it can be used to form an image
on the right. of the three-dimensional shape (topography) of a sample
surface at a high resolution. This is achieved by raster
scanning the position of the sample with respect to the
tip and recording the height of the probe that corresponds
1 Overview to a constant probe-sample interaction (see section topo-
graphic imaging in AFM for more details). The surface
topography is commonly displayed as a pseudocolor plot.
Detector and
In manipulation, the forces between tip and sample can
also be used to change the properties of the sample in a
controlled way. Examples of this include atomic manip-
Photodiode ulation, scanning probe lithography and local stimulation
of cells.
Simultaneous with the acquisition of topographical im-
ages, other properties of the sample can be measured lo-
cally and displayed as an image, often with similarly high
resolution. Examples of such properties are mechanical
properties like stiness or adhesion strength and electri-
cal properties such as conductivity or surface potential.
Cantiliever In fact, the majority of SPM techniques are extensions of
Sample Surface & Tip AFM that use this modality.

PZT 1.2 Other microscopy technologies

Block diagram of atomic-force microscope using beam deection Compared to competitive technologies such as optical
detection. As the cantilever is displaced via its interaction with the microscopy and electron microscopy, the major dier-
surface, so too will the reection of the laser beam be displaced ence between these and the atomic-force microscope is
on the surface of the photodiode. that the latter does not use lenses or beam irradiation.


Therefore, it does not suer from a limitation of space system (0).

resolution due to diraction limit and aberration, and it According to the conguration described above, the inter-
is not necessary to prepare a space for guiding the beam action between tip and sample, which can be an atomic
(by creating a vacuum) or to stain the sample. scale phenomenon, is transduced into changes of the mo-
There are several types of scanning microscopy includ- tion of cantilever which is a macro scale phenomenon.
ing scanning probe microscopy (which includes AFM, Several dierent aspects of the cantilever motion can be
scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and near-eld used to quantify the interaction between the tip and sam-
scanning optical microscope (SNOM/NSOM), STED ple, most commonly the value of the deection, the am-
microscopy (STED), and scanning electron microscopy). plitude of an imposed oscillation of the cantilever, or the
Although SNOM and STED use visible light to illumi- shift in resonance frequency of the cantilever (see section
nate the sample, their resolution is not constrained by the Imaging Modes).
diraction limit.

1.3.1 Detector
1.3 Conguration
The detector (5) of AFM measures the deection (dis-
Fig. 3 shows an AFM typically consisting of the following placement with respect to the equilibrium position) of the
features:[1] cantilever and converts it into an electrical signal. The in-
tensity of this signal will be proportional to the displace-
ment of the cantilever.
Various methods of detection can be used, e.g. inter-
ferometry, optical levers, the piezoresistive method, the
piezoelectric method, and STM-based detectors (see sec-
tion AFM cantilever deection measurement.).

1.3.2 Image formation

Note: This paragraphs assumes the 'contact mode' is used

(see section Imaging Modes). For other imaging modes,
the process is similar, except that 'deection' should be re-
placed by the appropriate feedback variable.
When using the AFM to image a sample, the tip is
brought into contact with the sample, and the sample
Fig. 3: Typical conguration of an AFM. is raster scanned along an x-y grid (g 4). Most com-
(1):: Cantilever, (2): Support for cantilever, (3): Piezoelectric monly, an electronic feedback loop is employed to keep
element(to oscillate cantilever at its eigen frequency.), (4): Tip
the probe-sample force constant during scanning. This
(Fixed to open end of a cantilever, acts as the probe), (5): Detec-
feedback loop has the cantilever deection as input, and
tor of deection and motion of the cantilever, (6): Sample to be
measured by AFM, (7): xyz drive, (moves sample (6) and stage its output controls the distance along the z axis between
(8) in x, y, and z directions with respect to a tip apex (4)), and the probe support (2 in g. 3) and the sample support (8
(8): Stage. in g 3). As long as the tip remains in contact with the
sample, and the sample is scanned in the x-y plane, height
The small spring-like cantilever (1) is carried by the sup- variations in the sample will change the deection of the
port (2). Optionally, a piezoelectric element (3) oscillates cantilever. The feedback then adjusts the height of the
the cantilever (1). The sharp tip (4) is xed to the free end probe support so that the deection is restored to a user-
of the cantilever (1). The detector (5) records the deec- dened value (the setpoint). A properly adjusted feed-
tion and motion of the cantilever (1). The sample (6) is back loop adjusts the support-sample separation contin-
mounted on the sample stage (8). An xyz drive (7) per- uously during the scanning motion, such that the deec-
mits to displace the sample (6) and the sample stage (8) in tion remains approximately constant. In this situation, the
x, y, and z directions with respect to the tip apex (4). Al- feedback output equals the sample surface topography to
though Fig. 3 shows the drive attached to the sample, the within a small error.
drive can also be attached to the tip, or independent drives Historically, a dierent operation method has been used,
can be attached to both, since it is the relative displace- in which the sample-probe support distance is kept con-
ment of the sample and tip that needs to be controlled. stant and not controlled by a feedback (servo mecha-
Controllers and plotter are not shown in Fig. 3. Numbers nism). In this mode, usually referred to as 'constant height
in parentheses correspond to numbered features in Fig. mode', the deection of the cantilever is recorded as a
3. Coordinate directions are dened by the coordinate function of the sample x-y position. As long as the tip is in

contact with the sample, the deection then corresponds Applications in the eld of solid state physics include (a)
to surface topography. The main reason this method is the identication of atoms at a surface, (b) the evalua-
not very popular anymore, is that the forces between tip tion of interactions between a specic atom and its neigh-
and sample are not controlled, which can lead to forces boring atoms, and (c) the study of changes in physical
high enough to damage the tip or the sample. It is how- properties arising from changes in an atomic arrangement
ever common practice to record the deection even when through atomic manipulation.
scanning in 'constant force mode', with feedback. This In cellular biology, AFM can be used to (a) attempt to
reveals the small tracking error of the feedback, and candistinguish cancer cells and normal cells based on a hard-
sometimes reveal features that the feedback was not able
ness of cells, and (b) to evaluate interactions between a
to adjust for. specic cell and its neighboring cells in a competitive cul-
The AFM signals, such as sample height or cantilever de- ture system.
ection, are recorded on a computer during the x-y scan. In some variations, electric potentials can also be scanned
They are plotted in a pseudocolor image, in which each using conducting cantilevers. In more advanced ver-
pixel represents an x-y position on the sample, and the sions, currents can be passed through the tip to probe
color represents the recorded signal. the electrical conductivity or transport of the underlying
surface, but this is a challenging task with few research
groups reporting consistent data (as of 2004).[3]

2 Principles

Fig. 5: Topographic image forming by AFM.

(1): Tip apex, (2): Sample surface, (3): Z-orbit of Tip apex, (4):
Cantilever. Electron micro-
graph of a used AFM cantilever. Image width ~100
1.4 History
AFM was invented by IBM Scientists in 1982.The pre-
cursor to the AFM, the scanning tunneling microscope
(STM), was developed by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich
Rohrer in the early 1980s at IBM Research - Zurich, a de-
velopment that earned them the Nobel Prize for Physics
in 1986. Binnig invented[1] the atomic-force microscope
and the rst experimental implementation was made by
Binnig, Quate and Gerber in 1986.[2] Electron micro-
graph of a used AFM cantilever. Image width ~30
The rst commercially available atomic-force microscope micrometers
was introduced in 1989. The AFM is one of the foremost
tools for imaging, measuring, and manipulating matter at
the nanoscale. The AFM consists of a cantilever with a sharp tip (probe)
at its end that is used to scan the specimen surface. The
cantilever is typically silicon or silicon nitride with a tip
1.5 Applications radius of curvature on the order of nanometers. When the
tip is brought into proximity of a sample surface, forces
The AFM has been applied to problems in a wide range between the tip and the sample lead to a deection of
of disciplines of the natural sciences, including solid- the cantilever according to Hookes law.[4] Depending on
state physics, semiconductor science and technology, the situation, forces that are measured in AFM include
molecular engineering, polymer chemistry and physics, mechanical contact force, van der Waals forces, capillary
surface chemistry, molecular biology, cell biology and forces, chemical bonding, electrostatic forces, magnetic
medicine. forces (see magnetic force microscope, MFM), Casimir

forces, solvation forces, etc. Along with force, additional spring constant, k) are used to achieve a large enough
quantities may simultaneously be measured through the deection signal while keeping the interaction force low.
use of specialized types of probes (see scanning ther- Close to the surface of the sample, attractive forces can
mal microscopy, scanning joule expansion microscopy, be quite strong, causing the tip to snap-in to the sur-
photothermal microspectroscopy, etc.). face. Thus, contact mode AFM is almost always done at
a depth where the overall force is repulsive, that is, in rm
contact with the solid surface.

2.1.2 Tapping mode

Atomic-force microscope topographical scan of a glass surface.

The micro and nano-scale features of the glass can be observed,
portraying the roughness of the material. The image space is
(x,y,z) = (20 m 20 m 420 nm).

The AFM can be operated in a number of modes, de-

pending on the application. In general, possible imag-
ing modes are divided into static (also called contact)
modes and a variety of dynamic (non-contact or tap-
ping) modes where the cantilever is vibrated or oscillated
at a given frequency.[5]

Single polymer chains (0.4 nm thick) recorded in a tapping mode

2.1 Imaging modes under aqueous media with dierent pH.[6]

AFM operation is usually described as one of three In ambient conditions, most samples develop a liquid
modes, according to the nature of the tip motion: contact meniscus layer. Because of this, keeping the probe tip
mode, also called static mode (as opposed to the other close enough to the sample for short-range forces to be-
two modes, which are called dynamic modes); tapping come detectable while preventing the tip from sticking to
mode, also called intermittent contact, AC mode, or vi- the surface presents a major problem for contact mode in
brating mode, or, after the detection mechanism, ampli- ambient conditions. Dynamic contact mode (also called
tude modulation AFM; non-contact mode, or, again after intermittent contact, AC mode or tapping mode) was
the detection mechanism, frequency modulation AFM. developed to bypass this problem.[7] Nowadays, tapping
mode is the most frequently used AFM mode when op-
It should be noted that despite the nomenclature, repul- erating in ambient conditions or in liquids.
sive contact can occur or be avoided both in amplitude
modulation AFM and frequency modulation AFM, de- In tapping mode, the cantilever is driven to oscillate up
pending on the settings. and down at or near its resonance frequency. This os-
cillation is commonly achieved with a small piezo ele-
ment in the cantilever holder, but other possibilities in-
2.1.1 Contact mode clude an AC magnetic eld (with magnetic cantilevers),
piezoelectric cantilevers, or periodic heating with a mod-
In contact mode, the tip is dragged across the surface ulated laser beam. The amplitude of this oscillation usu-
of the sample and the contours of the surface are mea- ally varies from several nm to 200 nm. In tapping mode,
sured either using the deection of the cantilever directly the frequency and amplitude of the driving signal are
or, more commonly, using the feedback signal required kept constant, leading to a constant amplitude of the can-
to keep the cantilever at a constant position. Because tilever oscillation as long as there is no drift or interaction
the measurement of a static signal is prone to noise and with the surface. The interaction of forces acting on the
drift, low stiness cantilevers (i.e. cantilevers with a low cantilever when the tip comes close to the surface, Van
2.1 Imaging modes 5

der Waals forces, dipole-dipole interactions, electrostatic of the cantilever does not contact the sample surface.
forces, etc. cause the amplitude of the cantilevers oscil- The cantilever is instead oscillated at either its resonant
lation to change (usually decrease) as the tip gets closer frequency (frequency modulation) or just above (am-
to the sample. This amplitude is used as the parameter plitude modulation) where the amplitude of oscillation
that goes into the electronic servo that controls the height is typically a few nanometers (<10 nm) down to a
of the cantilever above the sample. The servo adjusts the few picometers.[9] The van der Waals forces, which are
height to maintain a set cantilever oscillation amplitude as strongest from 1 nm to 10 nm above the surface, or any
the cantilever is scanned over the sample. A tapping AFM other long-range force that extends above the surface acts
image is therefore produced by imaging the force of the to decrease the resonance frequency of the cantilever.
intermittent contacts of the tip with the sample surface.[8] This decrease in resonant frequency combined with the
feedback loop system maintains a constant oscillation
Although the peak forces applied during the contacting
part of the oscillation can be much higher than typically amplitude or frequency by adjusting the average tip-to-
sample distance. Measuring the tip-to-sample distance
used in contact mode, tapping mode generally lessens
the damage done to the surface and the tip compared at each (x,y) data point allows the scanning software to
construct a topographic image of the sample surface.
to the amount done in contact mode. This can be ex-
plained by the short duration of the applied force, and Non-contact mode AFM does not suer from tip or sam-
because the lateral forces between tip and sample are ple degradation eects that are sometimes observed after
signicantly lower in tapping mode over contact mode. taking numerous scans with contact AFM. This makes
Tapping mode imaging is gentle enough even for the vi- non-contact AFM preferable to contact AFM for mea-
sualization of supported lipid bilayers or adsorbed single suring soft samples, e.g. biological samples and organic
polymer molecules (for instance, 0.4 nm thick chains of thin lm. In the case of rigid samples, contact and non-
synthetic polyelectrolytes) under liquid medium. With contact images may look the same. However, if a few
proper scanning parameters, the conformation of single monolayers of adsorbed uid are lying on the surface of
molecules can remain unchanged for hours,[6] and even a rigid sample, the images may look quite dierent. An
single molecular motors can be imaged while moving. AFM operating in contact mode will penetrate the liquid
When operating in tapping mode, the phase of the can- layer to image the underlying surface, whereas in non-
tilevers oscillation with respect to the driving signal can contact mode an AFM will oscillate above the adsorbed
be recorded as well. This signal channel contains infor- uid layer to image both the liquid and surface.
mation about the energy dissipated by the cantilever in Schemes for dynamic mode operation include frequency
each oscillation cycle. Samples that contain regions of modulation where a phase-locked loop is used to track the
varying stiness or with dierent adhesion properties can cantilevers resonance frequency and the more common
give a contrast in this channel that is not visible in the to- amplitude modulation with a servo loop in place to keep
pographic image. Extracting the samples material prop- the cantilever excitation to a dened amplitude. In fre-
erties in a quantitative manner from phase images, how- quency modulation, changes in the oscillation frequency
ever, is often not feasible. provide information about tip-sample interactions. Fre-
quency can be measured with very high sensitivity and
thus the frequency modulation mode allows for the use
2.1.3 Non-contact mode of very sti cantilevers. Sti cantilevers provide stability
very close to the surface and, as a result, this technique
was the rst AFM technique to provide true atomic reso-
lution in ultra-high vacuum conditions.[10]
In amplitude modulation, changes in the oscillation am-
plitude or phase provide the feedback signal for imaging.
In amplitude modulation, changes in the phase of oscilla-
tion can be used to discriminate between dierent types
of materials on the surface. Amplitude modulation can be
operated either in the non-contact or in the intermittent
contact regime. In dynamic contact mode, the cantilever
is oscillated such that the separation distance between the
cantilever tip and the sample surface is modulated.
Amplitude modulation has also been used in the non-
contact regime to image with atomic resolution by using
very sti cantilevers and small amplitudes in an ultra-high
vacuum environment.
AFM non-contact mode

In non-contact atomic force microscopy mode, the tip


3 Topographic image frequency obtained by a raster scan along the x-y direc-
tion of the sample surface are plotted against the x-y coor-
Image formation is a plotting method that produces a dination of each measurement point is called a constant-
color mapping through changing the x-y position of the height image.
tip while scanning and recording the measured variable, On the other hand, the df may be kept constant by moving
i.e. the intensity of control signal, to each x-y coordi- the probe upward and downward (See (3) of FIG.5) in z-
nate. The color mapping shows the measured value cor- direction using a negative feedback (by using z-feedback
responding to each coordinate. The image expresses the loop) while the raster scan of the sample surface along
intensity of a value as a hue. Usually, the correspondence the x-y direction . The image in which the amounts of
between the intensity of a value and a hue is shown as the negative feedback (the moving distance of the probe
a color scale in the explanatory notes accompanying the upward and downward in z-direction) are plotted against
image. the x-y coordination of each measurement point is a to-
pographic image. In other words, the topographic image
is a trace of the tip of the probe regulated so that the df
3.1 What is the topographic image of is constant and it may also be considered to be a plot of a
atomic-force microscope? constant-height surface of the df.
Therefore, the topographic image of the AFM is not the
Operation mode of Image forming of the AFM are gener-
exact surface morphology itself, but actually the image
ally classied into two groups from the viewpoint whether
inuenced by the bond-order between the probe and the
it uses z-Feedback loop (not shown) to maintain the tip-
sample, however, the topographic image of the AFM is
sample distance to keep signal intensity exported by the
considered to reect the geographical shape of the surface
detector. The rst one (using z-Feedback loop), said to
more than the topographic image of a scanning tunnel mi-
be constant XX mode (XX is something which kept by
z-Feedback loop).
Topographic Image Formation Mode is based on above-
mentioned constant XX mode, z-Feedback loop con-
trols the relative distance between the probe and the sam- 4 Force spectroscopy
ple through outputting control signals to keep constant
one of frequency, vibration and phase which typically Another major application of AFM (besides imaging) is
corresponds to the motion of cantilever (for instance, force spectroscopy, the direct measurement of tip-sample
voltage is applied to the Z-piezoelectric element and it interaction forces as a function of the gap between the
moves the sample up and down towards the Z direction. tip and sample (the result of this measurement is called
Details will be explained in the case that especially con- a force-distance curve). For this method, the AFM tip is
stant df mode"(FM-AFM) among AFM as an instance in extended towards and retracted from the surface as the
next section. deection of the cantilever is monitored as a function
of piezoelectric displacement. These measurements have
been used to measure nanoscale contacts, atomic bond-
3.2 Topographic image of FM-AFM ing, Van der Waals forces, and Casimir forces, dissolution
forces in liquids and single molecule stretching and rup-
When the distance between the probe and the sample ture forces.[11] Furthermore, AFM was used to measure,
is brought to the range where atomic force may be de- in an aqueous environment, the dispersion force due to
polymer adsorbed on the substrate.[12] Forces of the order
tected, while a cantilever is excited in its natural eigen fre-
quency (f0 ), a phenomenon that the resonance frequency of a few piconewtons can now be routinely measured with
(f) of the cantilever shifts from the original resonance a vertical distance resolution of better than 0.1 nanome-
frequency (natural eigen frequency) of the cantilever. In ters. Force spectroscopy can be performed with either
other words, in the range where atomic force may be de- static or dynamic modes. In dynamic modes, information
tected, the frequency shift (df=f-f0 ) will be observed. So, about the cantilever vibration is monitored in addition to
when the distance between the probe and the sample is in the static deection.[13]
the non-contact region, the frequency shift increases in Problems with the technique include no direct measure-
negative direction as the distance between the probe and ment of the tip-sample separation and the common need
the sample gets smaller. for low-stiness cantilevers, which tend to 'snap' to the
When the sample has concavity and convexity, the dis- surface. These problems are not insurmountable. An
tance between the tip-apex and the sample varies in ac- AFM that directly measures the tip-sample separation has
cordance with the concavity and convexity accompanied been developed.[14] The snap-in can be reduced by mea-
with a scan of the sample along x-y direction (without suring in liquids or by using stier cantilevers, but in the
height regulation in z-direction) . As a result, the fre- latter case a more sensitive deection sensor is needed.
quency shift arises. The image in which the values of the By applying a small dither to the tip, the stiness (force

gradient) of the bond can be measured as well.[15] but other names include AFM tip and "cantilever" (em-
ploying the name of a single part as the name of the whole
device). An AFM probe is a particular type of SPM
4.1 Biological applications and other (scanning probe microscopy) probe.
AFM probes are manufactured with MEMS technology.
Force spectroscopy is used in biophysics to measure the
Most AFM probes used are made from silicon (Si), but
mechanical properties.[16][17] of living material (such as
borosilicate glass and silicon nitride are also in use. AFM
tissue or cells).[18][19][20] Another application was to mea-
probes are considered consumables as they are often re-
sure the interaction forces between from one hand a ma-
placed when the tip apex becomes dull or contaminated
terial stuck on the tip of the cantilever, and from another
or when the cantilever is broken. They can cost from a
hand the surface of particles either free or occupied by
couple of tens of dollars up to hundreds of dollars per
the same material. From the adhesion force distribution
cantilever for the most specialized cantilever/probe com-
curve, a mean value of the forces has been derived. It
allowed to make a cartography of the surface of the par-
ticles, covered or not by the material.[21] Just the tip is brought very close to the surface of the ob-
ject under investigation, the cantilever is deected by the
interaction between the tip and the surface, which is what
the AFM is designed to measure. A spatial map of the
5 Identication of individual sur- interaction can be made by measuring the deection at
face atoms many points on a 2D surface.
Several types of interaction can be detected. Depend-
The AFM can be used to image and manipulate atoms ing on the interaction under investigation, the surface of
and structures on a variety of surfaces. The atom at the the tip of the AFM probe needs to be modied with a
apex of the tip senses individual atoms on the underly- coating. Among the coatings used are gold for covalent
ing surface when it forms incipient chemical bonds with bonding of biological molecules and the detection of their
each atom. Because these chemical interactions subtly interaction with a surface,[24] diamond for increased wear
alter the tips vibration frequency, they can be detected resistance[25] and magnetic coatings for detecting the
and mapped. This principle was used to distinguish be- magnetic properties of the investigated surface.[26] An-
tween atoms of silicon, tin and lead on an alloy surface, other solution exists to achieve high resolution magnetic
by comparing these 'atomic ngerprints to values ob- imaging : having the probe equip with a microSQUID.
tained from large-scale density functional theory (DFT) The AFM tips is fabricated using silicon micro machin-
simulations.[22] ing and the precise positioning of the microSQUID loop
The trick is to rst measure these forces precisely for each is done by electron beam lithography.
type of atom expected in the sample, and then to com- The surface of the cantilevers can also be modied. These
pare with forces given by DFT simulations. The team coatings are mostly applied in order to increase the re-
found that the tip interacted most strongly with silicon ectance of the cantilever and to improve the deection
atoms, and interacted 24% and 41% less strongly with tin signal.
and lead atoms, respectively. Thus, each dierent type of
atom can be identied in the matrix as the tip is moved
across the surface.
7 AFM cantilever-deection mea-
6 Probe
7.1 Beam-deection measurement
An AFM probe has a sharp tip on the free-swinging end
of a cantilever that is protruding from a holder.[23] The
The most common method for cantilever-deection mea-
dimensions of the cantilever are in the scale of microm-
surements is the beam-deection method. In this method,
eters. The radius of the tip is usually on the scale of a
laser light from a solid-state diode is reected o the
few nanometers to a few tens of nanometers. (Special-
back of the cantilever and collected by a position-
ized probes exist with much larger end radii, for example
sensitive detector (PSD) consisting of two closely spaced
probes for indentation of soft materials.) The cantilever
photodiodes, whose output signal is collected by a
holder, also called holder chip often 1.6 mm by 3.4
dierential amplier. Angular displacement of the can-
mm in size allows the operator to hold the AFM can-
tilever results in one photodiode collecting more light
tilever/probe assembly with tweezers and t it into the
than the other photodiode, producing an output signal
corresponding holder clips on the scanning head of the
(the dierence between the photodiode signals normal-
atomic-force microscope. ized by their sum), which is proportional to the deection
This device is most commonly called an AFM probe, of the cantilever. The sensitivity of the beam-deection

Optical interferometry Optical interferometry can

be used to measure cantilever deection.[30] Due
to the nanometre scale deections measured in
AFM, the interferometer is running in the sub-fringe
regime, thus, any drift in laser power or wave-
length has strong eects on the measurement. For
these reasons optical interferometer measurements
must be done with great care (for example using
index matching uids between optical bre junc-
tions), with very stable lasers. For these reasons op-
tical interferometry is rarely used.
AFM beam-deection detection Capacitive detection Metal coated cantilevers can
form a capacitor with another contact located be-
method is very high, a noise oor on the order of 10 fm hind the cantilever.[31] Deection changes the dis-
Hz 2 can be obtained routinely in a well-designed sys- tance between the contacts and can be measured as
tem. Although this method is sometimes called the 'opti- a change in capacitance.
cal lever' method, the signal is not amplied if the beam
Piezoresistive detection Cantilevers can be fab-
path is made longer. A longer beam path increases the
ricated with piezoresistive elements that act as a
motion of the reected spot on the photodiodes, but also
strain gauge. Using a Wheatstone bridge, strain
widens the spot by the same amount due to diraction,
in the AFM cantilever due to deection can be
so that the same amount of optical power is moved from
measured.[32] This is not commonly used in vac-
one photodiode to the other. The 'optical leverage' (out-
uum applications, as the piezoresistive detection dis-
put signal of the detector divided by deection of the can-
sipates energy from the system aecting Q of the
tilever) is inversely proportional to the numerical aperture
of the beam focusing optics, as long as the focused laser
spot is small enough to fall completely on the cantilever.
It is also inversely proportional to the length of the can-
tilever. 8 Piezoelectric scanners
The relative popularity of the beam-deection method
can be explained by its high sensitivity and simple opera- AFM scanners are made from piezoelectric material,
tion, and by the fact that cantilevers do not require electri- which expands and contracts proportionally to an applied
cal contacts or other special treatments, and can therefore voltage. Whether they elongate or contract depends upon
be fabricated relatively cheaply with sharp integrated tips. the polarity of the voltage applied. Traditionally the tip
or sample is mounted on a 'tripod' of three piezo crys-
tals, with each responsible for scanning in the x,y and z
7.2 Other deection-measurement meth- directions.[5] In 1986, the same year as the AFM was in-
ods vented, a new piezoelectric scanner, the tube scanner, was
developed for use in STM.[33] Later tube scanners were
Many other methods for beam-deection measurements incorporated into AFMs. The tube scanner can move the
exist. sample in the x, y, and z directions using a single tube
piezo with a single interior contact and four external con-
Piezoelectric detection Cantilevers made from tacts. An advantage of the tube scanner compared to the
quartz[28] (such as the qPlus conguration), or other original tripod design, is better vibrational isolation, re-
piezoelectric materials can directly detect deection sulting from the higher resonant frequency of the single
as an electrical signal. Cantilever oscillations down element construction, in combination with a low resonant
to 10pm have been detected with this method. frequency isolation stage. A disadvantage is that the x-y
motion can cause unwanted z motion resulting in distor-
Laser Doppler vibrometry A laser Doppler vibrom- tion. Another popular design for AFM scanners is the
eter can be used to produce very accurate deection exure stage, which uses separate piezos for each axis,
measurements for an oscillating cantilever[29] (thus and couples them through a exure mechanism.
is only used in non-contact mode). This method is
expensive and is only used by relatively few groups. Scanners are characterized by their sensitivity, which is
the ratio of piezo movement to piezo voltage, i.e., by how
STM The rst atomic microscope used an STM much the piezo material extends or contracts per applied
complete with its own feedback mechanism to mea- volt. Because of dierences in material or size, the sen-
sure deection.[5] This method is very dicult to sitivity varies from scanner to scanner. Sensitivity varies
implement, and is slow to react to deection changes non-linearly with respect to scan size. Piezo scanners ex-
compared to modern methods. hibit more sensitivity at the end than at the beginning of a
9.1 Advantages 9

scan. This causes the forward and reverse scans to behave 9.1 Advantages
dierently and display hysteresis between the two scan
directions.[34] This can be corrected by applying a non- AFM has several advantages over the scanning elec-
linear voltage to the piezo electrodes to cause linear scan- tron microscope (SEM). Unlike the electron microscope,
ner movement and calibrating the scanner accordingly.[34] which provides a two-dimensional projection or a two-
One disadvantage of this approach is that it requires re- dimensional image of a sample, the AFM provides a
calibration because the precise non-linear voltage needed three-dimensional surface prole. In addition, samples
to correct non-linear movement will change as the piezo viewed by AFM do not require any special treatments
ages (see below). This problem can be circumvented by (such as metal/carbon coatings) that would irreversibly
adding a linear sensor to the sample stage or piezo stage to change or damage the sample, and does not typically
detect the true movement of the piezo. Deviations from suer from charging artifacts in the nal image. While
ideal movement can be detected by the sensor and correc- an electron microscope needs an expensive vacuum en-
tions applied to the piezo drive signal to correct for non- vironment for proper operation, most AFM modes can
linear piezo movement. This design is known as a 'closed work perfectly well in ambient air or even a liquid en-
loop' AFM. Non-sensored piezo AFMs are referred to as vironment. This makes it possible to study biological
'open loop' AFMs. macromolecules and even living organisms. In princi-
ple, AFM can provide higher resolution than SEM. It has
The sensitivity of piezoelectric materials decreases ex-
been shown to give true atomic resolution in ultra-high
ponentially with time. This causes most of the change
vacuum (UHV) and, more recently, in liquid environ-
in sensitivity to occur in the initial stages of the scan-
ments. High resolution AFM is comparable in resolu-
ners life. Piezoelectric scanners are run for approxi-
tion to scanning tunneling microscopy and transmission
mately 48 hours before they are shipped from the fac-
electron microscopy. AFM can also be combined with
tory so that they are past the point where they may have
a variety of optical microscopy techniques such as uo-
large changes in sensitivity. As the scanner ages, the sen-
rescent microscopy, further expanding its applicability.
sitivity will change less with time and the scanner would
Combined AFM-optical instruments have been applied
seldom require recalibration,[35][36] though various man-
primarily in the biological sciences but have also found
ufacturer manuals recommend monthly to semi-monthly
a niche in some materials applications, especially those
calibration of open loop AFMs.
involving photovoltaics research.[8]

9.2 Disadvantages

9 Advantages and disadvantages A disadvantage of AFM compared with the scanning

electron microscope (SEM) is the single scan image size.
In one pass, the SEM can image an area on the order of
square millimeters with a depth of eld on the order of
millimeters, whereas the AFM can only image a maxi-
mum scanning area of about 150150 micrometers and
a maximum height on the order of 10-20 micrometers.
One method of improving the scanned area size for AFM
is by using parallel probes in a fashion similar to that of
millipede data storage.
The scanning speed of an AFM is also a limitation. Tra-
ditionally, an AFM cannot scan images as fast as an SEM,
requiring several minutes for a typical scan, while an
SEM is capable of scanning at near real-time, although
at relatively low quality. The relatively slow rate of scan-
ning during AFM imaging often leads to thermal drift in
the image[37][38][39] making the AFM less suited for mea-
suring accurate distances between topographical features
on the image. However, several fast-acting designs[40][41]
were suggested to increase microscope scanning produc-
The rst atomic-force microscope
tivity including what is being termed videoAFM (reason-
able quality images are being obtained with videoAFM
Just like any other tool, an AFMs usefulness has limi- at video rate: faster than the average SEM). To eliminate
tations. When determining whether or not analyzing a image distortions induced [37][38][39]
by thermal drift, several meth-
sample with an AFM is appropriate, there are various ad- ods have been introduced.
vantages and disadvantages that must be considered. AFM images can also be aected by nonlinearity,

hysteresis,[34] and creep of the piezoelectric material and 10 Other applications in various
cross-talk between the x, y, z axes that may require soft-
ware enhancement and ltering. Such ltering could
elds of study
atten out real topographical features. However, newer
AFMs utilize real-time correction software (for example, The latest eorts in integrating nanotechnology and bi-
feature-oriented scanning[35][37] ) or closed-loop scanners, ological research have been successful and show much
which practically eliminate these problems. Some AFMs promise for the future. Since nanoparticles are a potential
also use separated orthogonal scanners (as opposed to vehicle of drug delivery, the biological responses of cells
a single tube), which also serve to eliminate part of the to these nanoparticles are continuously being explored
cross-talk problems. to optimize their ecacy and how their design could be
improved.[42] Pyrgiotakis et al. were able to study the in-
teraction between CeO2 and Fe2O3 engineered nanopar-
ticles and cells by attaching the engineered nanoparti-
cles to the AFM tip.[43] Beyond the interactions with ex-
ternal synthetic materials, cells have been imaged with
X-ray crystallography and there has been much curios-
ity about their behavior in vivo. Studies have taken ad-
vantage of AFM to obtain further information on the
behavior of live cells in biological media. Real-time
atomic force spectroscopy (or nanoscopy) and dynamic
Showing an AFM artifact arising from a tip with a high radius atomic force spectroscopy have been used to study live
of curvature with respect to the feature that is to be visualized. cells and membrane proteins and their dynamic behav-
ior at high resolution, on the nanoscale. Imaging and
obtaining information on the topography and the prop-
As with any other imaging technique, there is the possi- erties of the cells has also given insight into chemical
bility of image artifacts, which could be induced by an processes and mechanisms that occur through cell-cell in-
unsuitable tip, a poor operating environment, or even by teraction and interactions with other signaling molecules
the sample itself, as depicted on the right. These image (ex. ligands). Evans and Calderwood used single cell
artifacts are unavoidable; however, their occurrence and force microscopy to study cell adhesion forces, bond
eect on results can be reduced through various methods. kinetics/dynamic bond strength and its role in chemi-
Artifacts resulting from a too-coarse tip can be caused for cal processes such as cell signaling.[44] Scheuring, Lvy,
example by inappropriate handling or de facto collisions and Rigaud reviewed studies in which AFM to explore
with the sample by either scanning too fast or having an the crystal structure of membrane proteins of photosyn-
unreasonably rough surface, causing actual wearing of the thetic bacteria.[45] Alsteen et al. have used AFM-based
tip. nanoscopy to perform a real-time analysis of the inter-
action between live mycobacteria and antimycobacterial
drugs (specically isoniazid, ethionamide, ethambutol,
and streptomycine),[46] which serves as an example of the
more in-depth analysis of pathogen-drug interactions that
can be done through AFM.

11 See also
AFM-based infrared spectroscopy (AFM-IR)

Frictional force mapping

AFM artifact, steep sample topography Photoconductive atomic force microscopy

Scanning voltage microscopy

Due to the nature of AFM probes, they cannot normally Surface force apparatus
measure steep walls or overhangs. Specially made can-
tilevers and AFMs can be used to modulate the probe
sideways as well as up and down (as with dynamic con- 12 References
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13 Further reading
Carpick, Robert W.; Salmeron, Miquel (1997).
Scratching the Surface: Fundamental Investi-
gations of Tribology with Atomic Force Mi-
croscopy. Chemical Reviews. 97 (4): 11631194.
doi:10.1021/cr960068q. ISSN 0009-2665.

Giessibl, Franz J. (2003). Advances in

atomic force microscopy. Reviews of Mod-
ern Physics. 75 (3): 949983. arXiv:cond-
mat/0305119 . Bibcode:2003RvMP...75..949G.
doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.75.949. ISSN 0034-
Ricardo, Garcia; Knoll, Armin; Riedo, Elisa
(2014). Advanced Scanning Probe Lithog-
raphy. Nature Nanotechnology. 9: 577.
doi:10.1038/NNANO.2014.157. PMID 25091447.

14 External links
List of AFM Instruments and Manufacturers (orga-
nized by lter options)

SPM gallery: surface scans, collages, artworks,

desktop wallpapers

AFM Scan Image Gallery (organized by application


Gwyddion: Multiplatform modular free software for

visualization and analysis of AFM data

15 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses

15.1 Text
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15.2 Images
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License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Contributors:
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