Microscope goes mini

The atomic force microscope (ATM) has contributed dramatically to shrinking the scale at which scientists can make out details of objects. Invented in 1986, the instrument records the shapes of samples by dragging a sharp-tipped cantilever over their surfaces (SN: 10/24/98, p. 268). Now, the AFM has undergone some startling shrinkage of its own.

SHARP EYES. Armed with multiple cantilevers that permit many simultaneous scans, a chip-size atomic force microscope can record images exceptionally fast. Physical Electronics Laboratory/ ETHZ

A team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich has exploited microchip-fabrication methods to integrate both the cantilevers and the electronic circuits of an AFM on one, fingernail-size sliver of silicon.

Such compactness comes at a price, however. Compared with the best full-size AFMs, which can spot individual atoms, the chip version can resolve features only 10 to 100 times as large, says team leader Andreas Hierlemann. Still, “the resolution is good for most purposes,” such as examining nanoscale parts in microelectronics, he adds.

The team describes the chip in the Dec. 7, 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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