The Atomic Force Microscope (AFM ) is being used to solve processing and materials problems in a wide range of technologies affecting the electronics, telecommunications, biological, chemical, automotive, aerospace, and energy industries. The materials being investigating include thin and thick film coatings, ceramics, composites, glasses, synthetic and biological membranes, metals, polymers, and semiconductors. The AFM is being applied to studies of phenomena such as abrasion, adhesion, cleaning, corrosion, etching, friction, lubrication, plating, and polishing. By using AFM one can not only image the surface in atomic resolution but also measure the force at nano-newton scale. The publications related to the AFM are growing speedily since its birth.

The first AFM was made by meticulously gluing a tiny shard of diamond onto one end of a tiny strip of gold foil. In the fall of 1985 Gerd Binnig and Christoph Gerber used the cantilever to examine insulating surfaces. A small hook at the end of the cantilever was pressed against the surface while the sample was scanned beneath the tip. The force between tip and sample was measured by tracking the deflection of the cantilever. This was done by monitoring the tunneling current tot a second tip positioned above the cantilever. They could delineate lateral features as small as 300 Å. The force microscope emerged in this way. In fact, without the breakthrough in tip manufacture, the AFM probably would have remained a curiosity in many research groups. It was Albrecht, a fresh graduate student, who fabricated the first silicon microcantilever and measured the atomic structure of boron nitride. Today the tip-cantilever assembly typically is microfabricated from Si or Si3N4. The era of AFM came finally when the Zurich group released the image of a silicon (111) 7X7 pattern. The world of surface science knew that a new tool for surface microscope was at hand. After several years the microcantilevers have been perfected, and the instrument has been embraced by scientists and technologists.

The force between the tip and the sample surface is very small, usually less than 10-9 N. How to monitor such small forces is another story. The detection system does not measure force directly. It senses the deflection of the microcantilever. The detecting systems for monitoring the deflection fall into several categories. The first device introduced by Binnig was a tunneling tip placed above the metallized surface of the cantilever. This is a sensitive system where a change in spacing of 1 Å between tip and cantilever changes the tunneling current by an order of magnitude. It is straightforward to measure deflections smaller than 0.01 Å. Subsequent systems were based on the optical techniques. The interferometer is the most sensitive of the optical methods, but it is somewhat more complicated than the beam-bounce method which was introduced by Meyer and Amer. The beam-bounce method is now widely used as a result of the excellent work by Alexander and colleagues. In this system an optical beam is reflected from the mirrored surface on the back side of the cantilever onto a position-sensitive photodetector. In this arrangement a small deflection of the cantilever will tilt the reflected beam and change the position of beam on the photodetector. A third optical system introduced by Sarid uses the cantilever as one of the mirrors in the cavity of a diode laser. Motion of the cantilever has a strong effect on the laser output, and this is exploited as a motion detector. An expanded view of the image at left, and a legend describing its parts is found here.

According to the interaction of the tip and the sample surface, the AFM can be classified as repulsive or Contact mode and attractive or Noncontact mode. Now the Tappingmode shows a prosperous future to image the micro-world.

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