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Atomic Force Microscopy: The Eyes of Nanotechnology


November 29, 2005

Atomic force microscopy (AFM) is the principal technology that scientists and researchers use to view and manipulate samples at the nanometer scale, which is why it's called the "eyes of nanotechnology." The atomic force microscope is a high-resolution imaging and measurement tool that allows researchers to directly view single atoms or molecules that are only a few nanometers in size, then produce a three-dimensional map of the sample's surface.

The number of applications for AFM has exploded since the technology was invented in 1986 and now spans many areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. AFM provides the ability to view and understand events as they occur at the molecular level. This will increase knowledge of how systems work and lead to advancements in such areas as drug discovery, life science, materials science, electrochemistry, polymer science, biophysics and biotechnology.

A number of advantages over other technologies make AFM a favorite with researchers. The chief difference between AFM and other microscopy techniques is the measure of resolution. While electron and optical microscopes provide a standard two-dimensional horizontal view of a sample's surface, AFM also provides a vertical view. The resulting images show the topography of a sample's surface. And while electron microscopes work in a vacuum, most AFM modes work in ambient or liquid environments. AFM does not require any special sample preparation that could damage the sample or prevent its reuse.

How AFM works
AFM is part of a family of instruments called scanning probe microscopes (SPM). AFM uses a probe moving across the sample's surface to identify its features. The probe is a sharp tip, usually made of silicon, at the end of a cantilever that bends in response to the force between the tip and the sample being viewed. That deflection is measured and the AFM records the surface topography. The tip never touches the sample surface, thus preventing damage to the sample.

The predecessor of AFM is scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), or the scanning tunneling microscope. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented STM in 1981 and shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics for their innovation. AFM has surpassed STM by providing broader potential and applications because it can be used for imaging any conducting or non-conducting surface. STM is limited to imaging conducting surfaces.

Figure 1
PicoPlus AFM images of Cat tail collagen fiber fixed on cover glass. AAC Mode Image (left) was obtained in air. MAC Mode image (right) was obtained in water after re-hydration of the collagen sample. 3.3µm x 3.3µm (left), 1.4µm x 1.4µm (right). (S. Wu)

Additional high-resolution images are at: www.agilent.com/find/AFM_images

Agilent acquisition
Molecular Imaging Corp., based in Tempe, Ariz., is a premier developer and supplier of AFM systems for high-resolution imaging in fluids or ambient air under controlled temperature and environmental conditions. It was the first to develop methods for imaging in fluids with AFM. In 2004, the company was recognized as a R&D 100 Award winner for technical innovation.

Professor Stuart Lindsay and Dr. Tianwei Jing of Arizona State University founded the company in 1993 and are still involved with research and development. Lindsay runs the Lindsay Laboratory at Arizona State, which has worked with Molecular Imaging on new features for AFM research.

Agilent Technologies (NYSE: A) announced its acquisition of Molecular Imaging on Nov. 29, 2005.

"Molecular Imaging's AFM technology is a great addition to Agilent's portfolio of tools and solutions for the nanotechnology market," said Bob Burns, vice president of Agilent's Nanotechnology Measurements Division, part of the company's Electronic Measurements Group. "Agilent's expertise as the world's premier measurement company will help to improve Molecular Imaging's AFM products."

AFM occupies a significant portion of the $1 billion nanotechnology measurement tools market that is expected to continue to grow at about 20 percent a year, Burns said.

The PicoPlus® family of atomic force microscopes is the flagship of Molecular Imaging's products. PicoPlus was the first completely modular AFM system, designed to offer more flexibility, options and higher resolution than other AFM systems. This makes it ideal for multipurpose, multiuser research facilities. The PicoPlus system requires minimal preparation of the sample to be viewed, making it ideal for in-situ observations of samples in their original or natural condition.

The PicoPlus family also has a variety of options for AFM that enable scientists to pursue research deeper into nanoscience. With PicoTREC™, researchers can perform real-time simultaneous topography and recognition imaging. PicoMAPS™ (Motorized AFM Precision Stage) provides fast, accurate imaging over large sample areas.

About Agilent
Agilent Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:A) is the world's premier measurement company and a technology leader in communications, electronics, life sciences and chemical analysis. The company's 27,000 employees serve customers in more than 110 countries. Agilent had net revenues of $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2005. Information about Agilent is available on the Web at www.Agilent.com.



Janet Smith, Agilent Technologies
+1 970 679 5397

Michele Drake, Agilent Technologies
+1 650/752-5296

Related links for more information
  Press Release: Agilent Technologies acquires Molecular Imaging and its atomic force microscopy technology (2005-November-29)
  Images: High Resolution Images

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