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AFM for Thin Films & Coatings

Atomic force microscopy image of a thin film

Thin films and coatings play a critical role in everything from food containers to photovoltaics. To meet such varied needs, they are made from every class of materials and by numerous processes, including deposition, self-assembly, and sol-gel techniques. Atomic force microscopy is a powerful tool for characterizing thin films and coatings, providing valuable information critical to performance. It quantifies 3D roughness and texture with unmatched spatial resolution, and measures nanoscale functionality including electrical, magnetic, and mechanical properties. The intrinsic dimensions of these films (thickness, grain and domain sizes, etc.) make it important to characterize them at sub-nanometer to micrometer resolutions. In addition, the ability to measure functional properties simultaneously at these length scales has become a key aspect of thin film engineering for targeted applications. AFM provides critical information in the development, optimization, and monitoring of thin film growth processes, and in rationalizing design pathways to achieve desired functional properties.

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  • Surface roughness
  • Uniformity, polydispersity
  • Morphology
  • Particle analysis
  • Film thickness

Mechanical Properties

  • Stiffness, Young's modulus (Force Curves, Fast Force Mapping, AM-FM, Contact Resonance)
  • Elastic modulus, loss modulus, viscoelastic loss tangent (AM-FM, Contact Resonance, Loss Tangent Imaging)
  • Energy dissipation (AM-FM, Contact Resonance, Loss Tangent Imaging, BE)

Tribological Properties

  • Friction (LFM)
  • Adhesion (Force Curves, Fast Force Mapping)
  • Wear (LFM)

Electrical Properties

  • Conductivity and permittivity (sMIM, CAFM)
  • Surface potential (KPFM)
  • Stored charge (EFM)
  • I-V profiles (CAFM, Force Mapping)
  • Dielectric breakdown (nanoTDDB)

Piezoelectric Properties

  • Electromechanical response (PFM)
  • Domain polarity (PFM)
  • Piezo-hysteresis (PFM)

Magnetic Properties

  • Magnetic force gradients (MFM)
  • Magnetic hysteresis (MFM, VFM)
  • Magnetoelectric coupling (MFM, PFM, VFM)

Thermal Properties

  • Thermal conductivity (SThM)
  • Thermomechanical response (ZTherm)
  • Phase transitions (ZTherm)

Common Uses

  • Batteries and energy storage
  • Biocompatibility 
  • Corrosion and antifouling
  • Data storage
  • Ferroelectrics and piezoelectrics
  • Optics
  • Photovoltaics
  • Semiconductor and microelectronic industries
  • Sensors and actuators including MEMS (microelectromechanical systems)
  • Tissue engineering and stem-cell research
  • Tribology

Typical Thin Film Deposition Processes

  • ALD (atomic layer deposition)
  • CVD (chemical vapor deposition)
  • MBE (molecular beam epitaxy)
  • PLD (pulsed laser deposition)
  • PVD (physical vapor deposition)
  • Self assembly
  • Sputtering
  • Spin casting
  • Thermal evaporation

"Probing the ionic and electrochemical phenomena during resistive switching of NiO thin films," W. Lu, J. Xiao, L.-M. Wong, S. Wang, and K. Zeng, ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 10, 8092 (2018).

"Orientation of ferroelectric domains and disappearance upon heating methylammonium lead triiodide perovskite from tetragonal to cubic phase," S. M. Vorpahl, R. Giridharagopal, G. E. Eperon, I. M. Hermes, S. A. L. Weber, and D. S. Ginger, ACS Appl. Energy Mater. 1, 1534 (2018).

"Highly compact CsPbBr3 perovskite thin films decorated by ZnO nanoparticles for enhanced random lasing," C. Li, Z. Zang, C. Han, Z. Hu, X. Tang, J. Du, Y. Leng, and K. Sun, Nano Energy 40, 195 (2017).

"Flexible and highly sensitive pressure sensors based on bionic hierarchical structures," M. Jian, K. Xia, Q. Wang, Z. Yin, H. Wang, C. Wang, H. Xie, M. Zhang, and Y. Zhang, Adv. Funct. Mater. 27, 1606066 (2017).

"Domain-wall conduction in ferroelectric BiFeO3 controlled by accumulation of charged defects," T. Rojac, A. Bencan, G. Drazic, N. Sakamoto, H. Ursic, B. Jancar, G. Tavcar, M. Makarovic, J. Walker, B. Malic, and D. Damjanovic, Nat. Mater. 16, 322 (2017).

"Stimuli-responsive weak polyelectrolyte multilayer films: A thin film platform for self triggered multi-drug delivery," S. Anandhakumar, P. Gokul, and A. M. Raichur, Mater. Sci. Eng. C 58, 622 (2016).

"Multiferroic and magnetoelectric properties of BiFeO3/Bi4Ti3O12 bilayer composite films," J. Chen, Z. Tang, Y. Bai, and S. Zhao, J. Alloys Compd. 675, 257 (2016).

"Grain boundary dominated ion migration in polycrystalline organic–inorganic halide perovskite films," Y. Shao, Y. Fang, T. Li, Q. Wang, Q. Dong, Y. Deng, Y. Yuan, H. Wei, M. Wang, A. Gruverman, J. Shield, and J. Huang, Energy Environ. Sci. 9, 1752 (2016).

"An in situ AFM study of the evolution of surface roughness for zinc electrodeposition within an imidazolium based ionic liquid electrolyte," J. S. Keist, C. A. Orme, P. K. Wright, and J. W. Evans, Electrochim. Acta 152, 161 (2015).

"Molecular-orientation-induced rapid roughening and morphology transition in organic semiconductor thin-film growth," J. Yang, S. Yim, and T. S. Jones, Sci. Rep. 5, 9441 (2015).

"Quantifying charge carrier concentration in ZnO thin films by scanning Kelvin probe microscopy," C. Maragliano, S. Lilliu, M. S. Dahlem, M. Chiesa, T. Souier, and M. Stefancich, Sci. Rep. 4, 4203 (2014).

"Study of oxygen plasma pre-treatment of polyester fabric for improved polypyrrole adhesion," T. Mehmood, A. Kaynak, X. J. Dai, A. Kouzani, K. Magniez, D. R. de Celis, C. J. Hurren, and J. du Plessis, Mater. Chem. Phys. 143, 668 (2014).

"Stratified polymer grafts: Synthesis and characterization of layered 'brush' and 'gel' structures," A. Li, S. N. Ramakrishna, P. C. Nalam, E. M. Benetti, and N. D. Spencer, Adv. Mater. Interfaces 1 1300007 (2013).

"Efficient small bandgap polymer solar cells with high fill factors for 300 nm thick films," W. Li, K. H. Hendriks, W. S. C. Roelofs, Y. Kim, M. M. Wienk, and R. A. J. Janssen, Adv. Mater. 25, 3182 (2013).

"Probing the local strain-mediated magnetoelectric coupling in multiferroic nanocomposites by magnetic field-assisted piezoresponse force microscopy," G. Caruntu, A. Yourdkhani, M. Vopsaroiu, and G. Srinivasan, Nanoscale 4, 3218 (2012).

"Temperature and thickness evolution and epitaxial breakdown in highly strained BiFeO3 thin films," A. R. Damodaran, S. Lee, J. Karthik, S. MacLaren, and L. W. Martin, Phys. Rev. B 85, 024113 (2012).

"V2O5 nano-electrodes with high power and energy densities for thin film Li-ion batteries," Y. Liu, M. Clark, Q. Zhang, D. Yu, D. Liu, J. Liu, and G. Cao, Adv. Energy Mater. 1, 194 (2011).

"Photoinduced degradation studies of organic solar cell materials using Kelvin probe force and conductive scanning force microscopy," E. Sengupta, A. L. Domanski, S. A. L. Weber, M. B. Untch, H.-J. Butt, T. Sauermann, H. J. Egelhaaf, and R. Berger, J. Phys. Chem. C 115, 19994 (2011).

"Nanomechanical properties of thin films of type I collagen fibrils," K.-H. Chung, K. Bhadriraju, T. A. Spurlin, R. F. Cook, and A. L. Plant, Langmuir 26, 3629 (2010).

"Improved performance of polymer bulk heterojunction solar cells through the reduction of phase separation via solvent additives," C. V. Hoven, X.-D. Dang, R. C. Coffin, J. Peet, T.-Q. Nguyen, and G. C. Bazan, Adv. Mater. 22, E63 (2010).

"Self-assembling polystyrene-block-poly(ethylene oxide) copolymer surface coatings: Resistance to protein and cell adhesion," P. A. George, B. C. Donose, and J. J. Cooper-White, Biomaterials 30, 2449 (2009).

"Centrifugal deposition of microgels for the rapid assembly of nonfouling thin films," A. B. South, R. E. Whitmire, A. J. Garcia, and L. A. Lyon, ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 1, 2747 (2009).

"Nanomechanical properties of polymer thin films measured by force-distance curves," B. Cappella and D. Silbernagl, Thin Solid Films 516, 1952 (2008).

"A reversible wet/dry adhesive inspired by mussels and geckos," H. Lee, B. P. Lee, and P B. Messersmith, Nature 448, 338 (2007).

"Diamond and hard carbon films for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)—a nanotribological study," I. S. Forbes and J. I. Wilson, Thin Solid Films 420, 508 (2002).