The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in 1981 was met with both widespread skepticism and academic acclaim. Contemporary microscopists doubted the veracity of achieving atomic resolution due to then technological limitations and because imaging single atoms seemed to defy the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Within five years, the scientific community had witnessed STM experiments conducted in air, liquid, and ultra-high vacuum conditions (UHV). Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the inventors of STM, were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and the field of scanning probe microscopy (SPM) was born.
Scanning probe microscopy is an advanced technique that uses physical probes to measure the surface qualities of a sample with extremely precise lateral and depth resolution. It is now one of the three primary divisions of microscopy—light, electron, and scanning probe—offering insights into not just the topographical features of samples, but alongside their mechanical, electrical, and functional properties.
This blog post will give an overview of the applications of scanning probe microscopy. It is by no means an exhaustive list, with numerous industries and fields of academic research still discovering the benefits of scanning probe microscopy.
The initial benefit of scanning probe microscopy was its atomic-scale resolution, but the expansive range of modes developed in more recent years bears most of the responsibility for the technology’s tremendous growth. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) is a branch of scanning probe microscopy that measures surface metrology, alongside electrical, magnetic, mechanical, functional, and thermal properties.
This tool has proven valuable in testing the nanomechanical properties of polymer composites and blends, with real-world uses in blend formulation and quality control (QC) of plastics, rubbers, and engineering polymers. Scanning probe microscopy was also instrumental in the initial verification of the first exfoliated graphene and remains a key device for two-dimensional (2D) materials research. It can be used to characterize epitaxial thin films with sub-angstrom scales of resolution. AFM is also finding increasing uses in the analysis of electronic circuit components and is supporting research and development (R&D) into quantum computing.
The most advanced scanning probe microscopy techniques have achieved vertical resolution on a scale of tens of picometers (pm). This has enhanced our understanding of the microstructural properties of new semiconductor materials, such as perovskite semiconducting junctions. The applications of this vertical resolution are myriad, but it is particularly advantageous for thin film process control and QC.
AFM can also be used to measure the piezo- and ferroelectrics for microscale electronic systems and advanced sensors. These are utilized by a range of end-users in application areas as varied as automotive, aerospace, and military sectors.
The primary benefit of scanning probe microscopy, particularly AFM, is its ability to operate in near-physiological conditions. This enhances the performance of in situ laboratory analysis of biological and organic samples. Researchers can consider the structure and properties of biomolecules, cells, and tissues close to native conditions, which has proven extremely useful in biological and biophysical research.
Asylum Research specializes in the development of unique scanning probe microscopy solutions for the broadest possible range of applications. We supply a range of powerful AFM tools specialized for distinct applications, which are broken down into the Cypher, MFP-3D, and Jupiter families of atomic force microscopes.
If you have any questions about atomic force microscopy, please do not hesitate to contact us directly.