Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas have created an atomic force microscope on a chip, dramatically shrinking the size — and, hopefully, the price tag — of a high-tech device commonly used to characterize material properties.
A standard atomic force microscope is a large, bulky instrument, with multiple control loops, electronics and amplifiers.
The researchers have managed to miniaturize all of the electromechanical components down onto a single small chip.
An atomic force microscope (AFM) is a scientific tool that is used to create detailed three-dimensional images of the surfaces of materials, down to the nanometer scale — that’s roughly on the scale of individual molecules.
The UT Dallas team created its prototype on-chip AFM using a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) approach.
A classic example of MEMS technology are the accelerometers and gyroscopes found in smartphones,
The MEMS-based AFM is about 1 square centimeter in size, or a little smaller than a dime. It is attached to a small printed circuit board, about half the size of a credit card, which contains circuitry, sensors and other miniaturized components that control the movement and other aspects of the device.
One of the attractive aspects about MEMS is that we can mass produce them, building hundreds or thousands of them in one shot, so the price of each chip would only be a few dollars. As a result, we might be able to offer the whole miniature AFM system for a few thousand dollars.
A reduced size and price tag also could expand the AFMs’ utility beyond current scientific applications.