Fundamental Theory of Atomic Force Microscopy

by Wenjie Mai

What is AFM?

The atomic force microscope (AFM) is one kind of scanning probe microscopes (SPM). SPMs are designed to measure local properties, such as height, friction, magnetism, with a probe. To acquire an image, the SPM raster-scans the probe over a small area of the sample, measuring the local property simultaneously.

How does AFM work?

AFMs operate by measuring force between a probe and the sample. Normally, the probe is a sharp tip, which is a 3-6 um tall pyramid with 15-40nm end radius (Figure 1). Though the lateral resolution of AFM is low (~30nm) due to the convolution, the vertical resolution can be up to 0.1nm.

Figure 1. (a) A new AFM tip; inset: The end of the new tip. (b) A used AFM tip.

To acquire the image resolution, AFMs can generally measure the vertical and lateral deflections of the cantilever by using the optical lever. The optical lever operates by reflecting a laser beam off the cantilever. The reflected laser beam strikes a position-sensitive photo-detector consisting of four-segment photo-detector. The differences between the segments of photo-detector of signals indicate the position of the laser spot on the detector and thus the angular deflections of the cantilever (Figure 2).

Figure 2. AFM is working with an optical lever.

Piezo-ceramics position the tip with high resolution. Piezoelectric ceramics are a class of materials that expand or contract when in the presence of a voltage gradient. Piezo-ceramics make it possible to create three-dimensional positioning devices of arbitrarily high precision.

In contact mode, AFMs use feedback to regulate the force on the sample. The AFM not only measures the force on the sample but also regulates it, allowing acquisition of images at very low forces. The feedback loop consists of the tube scanner that controls the height of the tip; the cantilever and optical lever, which measures the local height of the sample; and a feedback circuit that attempts to keep the cantilever deflection constant by adjusting the voltage applied to the scanner. A well-constructed feedback loop is essential to microscope performance (Figure 3).

Figure 3. AFM images of ZnO nanobelt.