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New Paradigm in Microscopy: Atomic Force Microscope on a Chip

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Ever since the 1980s, when Gerd Binnig of IBM first heard that “beautiful noise” made by the tip of the first scanning tunneling microscope (STM) dragging across the surface of an atom, and he later developed the atomic force microscope (AFM), these microscopy tools have been the bedrock of nanotechnology research and development.

AFMs have continued to evolve over the years, and at one time, IBM even looked into using them as the basis of a memory technology in the company’s Millipede project. Despite all this development, AFMs have remained bulky and expensive devices, costing as much as $50,000.

Now, researchers at the University of Texas (UT) Dallas have turned this paradigm on its ear by developing an AFM that uses microelectromechanical (MEMS) technology. The upshot: the entire AFM fits onto a computer chip about one square centimeter in size.

In research described in the journal IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, the scientists connected the MEMS-based AFM to a small printed circuit board containing all the circuitry, sensors, and other miniaturized components that control the device’s movements.