The Common AFM Modes

Many AFM modes have appeared for special purpose while the technique of AFM is becoming mature. Here I only specify the three commonly used techniques: Contact Mode(left), Non-contact Mode(middle) and Tapping Mode(right). Look here for a summary.

Contact Mode

The contact mode where the tip scans the sample in close contact with the surface is the common mode used in the force microscope. The force on the tip is repulsive with a mean value of 10 -9 N. This force is set by pushing the cantilever against the sample surface with a piezoelectric positioning element. In contact mode AFM the deflection of the cantilever is sensed and compared in a DC feedback amplifier to some desired value of deflection. If the measured deflection is different from the desired value the feedback amplifier applies a voltage to the piezo to raise or lower the sample relative to the cantilever to restore the desired value of deflection. The voltage that the feedback amplifier applies to the piezo is a measure of the height of features on the sample surface. It is displayed as a function of the lateral position of the sample. A few instruments operate in UHV but the majority operate in ambient atmosphere, or in liquids. Problems with contact mode are caused by excessive tracking forces applied by the probe to the sample. The effects can be reduced by minimizing tracking force of the probe on the sample, but there are practical limits to the magnitude of the force that can be controlled by the user during operation in ambient environments. Under ambient conditions, sample surfaces are covered by a layer of adsorbed gases consisting primarily of water vapor and nitrogen which is 10-30 monolayers thick . When the probe touches this contaminant layer, a meniscus forms and the cantilever is pulled by surface tension toward the sample surface. The magnitude of the force depends on the details of the probe geometry, but is typically on the order of 100 nanoNewtons. This meniscus force and other attractive forces may be neutralized by operating with the probe and part or all of the sample totally immersed in liquid. There are many advantages to operate AFM with the sample and cantilever immersed in a fluid. These advantages include the elimination of capillary forces, the reduction of Van der Waals' forces and the ability to study technologically or biologically important processes at liquid solid interfaces. However there are also some disadvantages involved in working in liquids. These range from nuisances such as leaks to more fundamental problems such as sample damage on hydrated and vulnerable biological samples.

In addition, a large class of samples, including semiconductors and insulators, can trap electrostatic charge(partially dissipated and screened in liquid). This charge can contribute to additional substantial attractive forces between the probe and sample. All of these forces combine to define a minimum normal force that can be controllably applied by the probe to the sample. This normal force creates a substantial frictional force as the probe scans over the sample. In practice, it appears that these frictional forces are far more destructive than the normal force and can damage the sample, dull the cantilever probe and distort the resulting data. Also many samples such as semiconductor wafers can not practically be immersed in liquid. An attempt to avoid these problem is the Non-contact Mode.

Non-contact Mode

A new era in imaging was opened when microscopists introduced a system for implementing the non-contact mode which is used in situations where tip contact might alter the sample in subtle ways. In this mode the tip hovers 50 - 150 Angstrom above the sample surface. Attractive Van der Waals forces acting between the tip and the sample are detected, and topographic images are constructed by scanning the tip above the surface. Unfortunately the attractive forces from the sample are substantially weaker than the forces used by contact mode. Therefore the tip must be given a small oscillation so that AC detection methods can be used to detect the small forces between the tip and the sample by measuring the change in amplitude, phase, or frequency of the oscillating cantilever in response to force gradients from the sample. For highest resolution, it is necessary to measure force gradients from Van der Waals forces which may extend only a nanometer from the sample surface. In general, the fluid contaminant layer is substantially thicker than the range of the Van der Waals force gradient and therefore, attempts to image the true surface with non-contact AFM fail as the oscillating probe becomes trapped in the fluid layer or hovers beyond the effective range of the forces it attempts to measure.

Tapping Mode

Tapping mode is a key advance in AFM. This potent technique allows high resolution topographic imaging of sample surfaces that are easily damaged, loosely hold to their substrate, or difficult to image by other AFM techniques. Tapping mode overcomes problems associated with friction, adhesion, electrostatic forces, and other difficulties that an plague conventional AFM scanning methods by alternately placing the tip in contact with the surface to provide high resolution and then lifting the tip off the surface to avoid dragging the tip across the surface. Tapping mode imaging is implemented in ambient air by oscillating the cantilever assembly at or near the cantilever's resonant frequency using a piezoelectric crystal. The piezo motion causes the cantilever to oscillate with a high amplitude( typically greater than 20nm) when the tip is not in contact with the surface. The oscillating tip is then moved toward the surface until it begins to lightly touch, or tap the surface. During scanning, the vertically oscillating tip alternately contacts the surface and lifts off, generally at a frequency of 50,000 to 500,000 cycles per second. As the oscillating cantilever begins to intermittently contact the surface, the cantilever oscillation is necessarily reduced due to energy loss caused by the tip contacting the surface. The reduction in oscillation amplitude is used to identify and measure surface features.

During tapping mode operation, the cantilever oscillation amplitude is maintained constant by a feedback loop. Selection of the optimal oscillation frequency is software-assisted and the force on the sample is automatically set and maintained at the lowest possible level. When the tip passes over a bump in the surface, the cantilever has less room to oscillate and the amplitude of oscillation decreases. Conversely, when the tip passes over a depression, the cantilever has more room to oscillate and the amplitude increases (approaching the maximum free air amplitude). The oscillation amplitude of the tip is measured by the detector and input to the NanoScope III controller electronics. The digital feedback loop then adjusts the tip-sample separation to maintain a constant amplitude and force on the sample.

When the tip contacts the surface, the high frequency (50k - 500k Hz) makes the surfaces stiff (viscoelastic), and the tip-sample adhesion forces is greatly reduced. TappingMode inherently prevents the tip from sticking to the surface and causing damage during scanning. Unlike contact and non-contact modes, when the tip contacts the surface, it has sufficient oscillation amplitude to overcome the tip-sample adhesion forces. Also, the surface material is not pulled sideways by shear forces since the applied force is always vertical. Another advantage of the TappingMode technique is its large, linear operating range. This makes the vertical feedback system highly stable, allowing routine reproducible sample measurements.

Tapping mode operation in fluid has the same advantages as in the air or vacuum. However imaging in a fluid medium tends to damp the cantilever's normal resonant frequency. In this case, the entire fluid cell can be oscillated to drive the cantilever into oscillation. This is different from the tapping or non-contact operation in air or vacuum where the cantilever itself is oscillating. When an appropriate frequency is selected (usually in the range of 5,000 to 40,000 cycles per second), the amplitude of the cantilever will decrease when the tip begins to tap the sample, similar to TappingMode operation in air. Alternatively, the very soft cantilevers can be used to get the good results in fluid. The spring constant is typically 0.1 N/m compared to the tapping mode in air where the cantilever may be in the range of 1-100 N/m.


In contact AFM electrostatic and/or surface tension forces from the adsorbed gas layer pull the scanning tip toward the surface. It can damage samples and distort image data. Therefore, contact mode imaging is heavily influenced by frictional and adhesive forces compared to non-contact or tapping mode.

Non-contact imaging generally provides low resolution and can also be hampered by the contaminant layer which can interfere with oscillation.

TappingMode AFM was developed as a method to achieve high resolution without inducing destructive frictional forces both in air and fluid. With the TappingMode technique, the very soft and fragile samples can be imaged successfully. Also, incorporated with Phase Imaging, the tapping mode AFM can be used to analyze the components of the membrane.

Author: Hong-Qiang Li: email:
Curator: Dan Thomas email: <>
Last Updated: Thursday, April 24 1997