Atomic Force Microscopy

Instruments Available

afm-schematicAtomic Force Microscopy (AFM) is a surface characterization tool that can provide topographic images and quantitative information in both lateral and vertical dimensions. An topographical image is generated when a cantilever with a sharp tip is scanned across the sample surface and the deflection or amplitude of the cantilever is monitored using a laser beam on the back of the cantilever.  In addition to topgraphical information, AFM can provide mechanical properties information, including elastic modulus and adhesion.

Key attributes

  • High resolution imaging: lateral resolution 1 nm (depending on tip), vertical resolution 0.1 nm
  • Samples can be imaged in both air and fluid environments


  • Samples do not need to be coated or placed in vacuum
  • High spatial resolution
  • Quantitative measurements in x, y and z
  • Allows imaging of biological in real time and in physiological conditions


  • Scan range limits: 90µm laterally (xy) and 5µm vertically (z) for the Multimode and 150µm laterally (xy) and 20µm vertically (z) for the Catalyst
  • Potential problems with extremely rough or oddly shaped samples
  • Imaging can cause damage to sample
  • Many electrical and magnetic modes are limited to qualitative or semi-quantitative measurements


  • Assessing the surface roughness of thin films before and after processing
  • Measuring the adhesion between the tip and sample surface
  • Measuring step heights
  • Measuring or mapping the mechanical properties of biological materials such as cells or tissues
  • Visualizing changes to a sample (i.e. crystal growth) in real time

Additional Reading