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Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM): All you need to know

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

Atomic Force Microscope

In this article, you can find all the information about Atomic Force Microscopes.

History and Background of Atomic Force Microscopy

The discipline of scanning probe microscopy (SPM) began in the early 1980s with Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer's creation of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. In the same year, Gerd Binning, Calvin Quate, and Christoph Gerber achieved a key advance with the creation of the atomic force microscope (AFM), which has since revolutionized nanoscale characterization and measurements.

Because AFM is the most used kind of SPM nowadays, the terms AFM and SPM are frequently interchanged. In the case of AFM, the probe is a console with a tip on the free end. SPM probes can also be made of simple metal wires (as in STM) or glass fibers (as in SNOM/NSOM scanning near field optical microscopy).

The area of scanning probe microscopy has blossomed far beyond usage since the discovery of the atomic force microscope (AFM) with the advent of the Nobel Prize-winning scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and subsequent landmark publication by Binnig, Quate, and Gerber. Nanometer-scale picture topography is influenced by interatomic forces. The capacity to observe atoms and analyze intermolecular forces is scientifically appealing.

AFM is now used to characterize a wide range of material characteristics using a number of approaches in which the probe interacts with the sample in various ways. Mechanical qualities (such as adhesion, stiffness, friction, and dispersion), electrical properties (such as capacitance, electrostatic forces, work function, and electric current), magnetic properties, and optical spectroscopic properties may all be measured with AFM. In lithography and molecular drawing investigations, the AFM probe may be used to manipulate, write, and even draw substrates in addition to imaging.

AFM, like optical and electron microscopy, has become a standard method for materials characterization due to its versatility, allowing for resolutions down to the nanoscale scale and beyond. AFM can function in a variety of conditions, from ultra-high vacuum to liquids, and so is applicable to a wide range of fields, including physics, chemistry, biology, and materials research.

What is atomic force microscopy (AFM)?

Atomic force microscopy (AFM) is a sub-nanometer resolution surface scanning technology. AFM is a term that refers to a collection of non-destructive surface analysis techniques employed at the nanoscale. They have a 103-fold higher resolution than optical microscopy's resolution limit. AFM is frequently used to acquire data on mechanical, functional, and electrical characteristics at the nanoscale, as well as for topography (surface) research.

How does AFM work?

AFM scans surfaces in a small area by raster scanning a sharp microprobe tip controlled by piezoelectric components and a feedback loop via a computer. To capture profile and interaction data, the probe tracks and touches the surface.

A sharp silicon nitrate or silicon tip on a free-moving console installed on a transport chip is the most popular AFM probe. Consoles are thin silicon nitrate or silicon arms with well-defined mechanical qualities and a rectangular or triangular form. The tip of the cantilever has a radius in the nanoscale range and has an extremely sharp protrusion at the end. According to Hooke's law, when the cantilever-mounted tip is brought near a sample surface by the AFM, forces between the tip and the sample alter the deflection of the cantilever.

Scanning the surface with the AFM tip provides a spatial profile or map of the sample region, which is used to gather surface/tip interaction data. On the rear of the console, a laser beam is focused and reflected onto a photodiode. This is shifted, and the photodiode surface records the motion.

A record marker follows the grooves on a vinyl record in the same way the tip interacts with samples. The correct cantilever characteristics for the AFM procedure are critical for effectively profiling the surface at the greatest resolution feasible.

What are the modes of AFM?

The AFM may be operated in a variety of modes depending on the application. Contact or static modes and varied tactile or dynamic modes, in which the probe console vibrates at a certain frequency, are the two types of imaging modalities.

When the tip is dragged across the surface in continuous contact, it is said to be in contact mode. In these instances, the feedback loop keeps the cantilever deflection (force) constant. While scanning over the top surface, the relative Z position of the probe and sample are adjusted. This movement is recorded and depicts the surface's constant force topography. The force generated by the tip's contact with the sample has the potential to harm the sample and wear the tip.

In dynamic Mode, the console oscillates at its resonance frequency. The amplitude of the oscillation is monitored and utilized as an input to the imaging feedback loop. In contact mode, the loop changes the relative Z position of the sample and probe. In this scenario, the goal is to maintain a constant amplitude, which results in a topographical image. When compared to the contact mode, tip-to-specimen forces are considerably reduced, and specimen damage and tip wear are greatly reduced.

In addition, the dynamic mode interaction, including its phase and extra high resonance modes, may be studied in greater depth. These signals provide a lot of information regarding end-sample interactions.

This extra data may be used to 'infer' and quantify a range of material characteristics, including depth of deformation, bond strength, and modulus. This implies that AFM can detect and analyze a variety of components in samples, ranging from biological materials to micro-electric devices and polymers.

Fast Force Matching Mode is another imaging approach that evaluates force-distance curves at high speed (1000 Hz or more) while collecting every curve in the picture scan. The underlying topography, as well as adhesion, modulus, and other characteristics, may then be calculated using both offline and real-time analytical methods.

What does AFM measure?

AFM is a strong imaging technology that can image practically any form of surface, including polymers, ceramics, composites, glass, and biological materials. Many various forces, including as adhesion forces, magnetic forces, and mechanical characteristics, are measured and localized using AFM.

The AFM is made up of a cantilever and a sharp tip with a diameter of 10 to 20 nm. Micro-manufactured AFM tips and brackets are made of Si or Si 3N4. The mobility of the tip is monitored by focussing a laser beam using a photodiode in response to tip-surface interactions.

There are two fundamental modes of operation for an AFM: contact and touch. The AFM tip is always in touch with the surface in contact mode. In dynamic mode, on the other hand, the AFM console vibrates above the sample surface, only coming into touch with the end surface on rare occasions. This procedure aids in the reduction of cutting forces caused by tip movement.

For AFM imaging, dynamic mode is the most widely used and recommended method. Only a few applications, such as force curve measurements, employ contact mode. AFM is a technique for seeing and manipulating atoms and structures on a variety of surfaces. Individual atoms on the surface below are "sensed" by the atom at the tip's top, which creates incipient chemical bonds with each atom. Chemical interactions may be identified and mapped because they modify the tip's vibration frequency exactly.

What kinds of observations can be made with atomic force microscopes?

Magnifying observation equipment called an atomic force microscope (AFM) can measure the three-dimensional textures of a very small region. It can gather height data in numerical values, unlike scanning electron microscopes, allowing for the measurement of samples and data post-processing.

How does AFM generate an image?

A tiny cantilever is used in an AFM to scan a sample's surface and produce pictures. The cantilever is bent when its sharp tip makes contact with a surface, altering the quantity of laser light that is reflected into the photodiode.

What is atomic force microscopy used for?

The topography of soft biological materials in their natural habitats may be imaged using the AFM. Additionally, it may be used to examine the mechanical characteristics of cells and extracellular matrix, such as their inherent elastic modulus and interactions between receptors and ligands.

What is an advantage of using atomic force microscopy?

The principal functions of the atomic force microscope (AFM), a form of scanning probe microscope, include measuring elements like magnetism, height, and friction. In comparison to the optical diffraction limit, the resolution is measured in nanometers, which is far more precise and efficient.

What is the fundamental principle of AFM?

Surface detection is used in AFM microscopes, which use an extremely sharp tip on a micromachined silicon probe. This tip is used to photograph a sample using a line-by-line scan across the surface, albeit the procedure varies greatly depending on the operating mode. Contact mode and dynamic or tactile mode are the two primary groupings of operating modes that are regularly used.

The nanoscale tip is coupled to a tiny cantilever that generates an arc, which is the underlying principle of AFM. The console bends when the tip makes contact with the surface, and the bend is detected using a laser diode and a split photodetector. The contact force between the tip and the specimen is shown by this bending. The tip is pushed on the surface in contact mode, and an electrical feedback loop monitors the tip-to-sample interaction force to maintain a constant deflection during the scan.

To protect both the sample surface and the tip from damage, the dynamic mode restricts the amount of contact between both. The console vibrates close to its resonance frequency in this mode. The tip then glides up and down in a motion known as sinusoidal. As it approaches the sample, its motion is reduced by attractive or repulsive interactions. A feedback loop is employed in the touch mode, however, instead of quasi-static deflection, the amplitude of the touch gesture is kept constant. As a result, the sample's topography is drawn line by line.


STM stands for Scanning Tunneling Microscope while AFM stands for Atomic Force Microscope. In the atomic and molecular disciplines, the invention of these two microscopes is considered a revolution.

AFM, or atomic force microscopy, takes exact pictures by sliding a nanometer-sized tip across the image's surface. Quantum tunneling is used by STM to capture pictures.

The Scanning Tunneling Microscope was the first of the two microscopes to be created.

In contrast to STM, AFM uses a probe that makes direct contact with the surface and calculates incipient chemical connections. By computing the quantum degree tunnel between the probe and the sample, STM pictures are indirectly shown.

Another distinction is that the tip of the AFM probe softly contacts the surface, whereas the tip of the STM probe is retained at a short distance from the surface.

Unlike STM, AFM simply measures the tiny force between the surface and the tip, not the tunneling current.

It has also been discovered that AFM has a higher resolution than STM. AFM is commonly utilized in nanotechnology because of this. AFM is more complicated than STM when it comes to the relationship between force and distance.

Atomic Force Microscopy may be used on both conductors and insulators, unlike Scanning Tunneling Microscopy, which is often used on conductors. STM only works in high vacuum, but AFM adapts well to liquid and gas conditions.

AFM has a higher topographic contrast, direct height measurement, and superior surface characteristics than STM.

What is the difference between AFM and SEM?

The SEM provides magnification in x and y dimensions. The AFM provides magnification in x, y, and z dimensions. An AFM picture allows users to quantify the height of a sample feature directly, whereas a SEM sample often requires cross-sectioning in order to do so.

What are the limitations of AFM?

The requirement that nanoparticles be adsorbed onto support surfaces, such as mica or silicon wafers, is one of the limitations of AFM. The size, shape, and flattening of the vesicles may be altered by the adsorption of liposomes onto a solid substrate.

Where can I buy an AFM?

If you are looking for a high-quality AFM, you can check NanoMagnetics Instruments' ezAFM/hpAFM.

Contact us to get a quote for AFM.



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