Physics Department Acquires New Technology

Atomic force microscope makes nanotechnology more real

By: Becky St. Clair

Top: The part of the microscope that does all the moving is only 3 inches on each side. Bottom: An image created by the AFM - the surface of a leaf, about the largest item the scope can image.

The WWU physics department recently acquired a new toy. A $30,000 toy. The exciting new item is a basic model atomic force microscope. (A full-featured commercial model costs about 10 times as much.)

This particular type of microscope takes a picture in a method very similar to the method used by the blind to read a Braille book. A small finger, called a cantilever, drags slowly over the surface of the sample to be imaged. A computer compiles the height information from each point into a single picture.

Because each point on the object must be visited, it takes quite a while to make an image. However, the atomic force microscope (AFM) can see very small things. The largest picture the model the physics department now owns can take is about 0.05 mm wide, but the smallest picture possible is about 100 atoms wide.

Something to note about the AFM is that it isn’t what one would typically expect of a microscope.

“One of the biggest frustrations people have with the AFM,” explains Tom Ekkens, chair of the physics department, “is that it isn’t a microscope you can put your eyes up to and look through like everyone imagines a microscope to be."

In fact, the part of the AFM responsible for taking the image is a hexagon measuring about three inches on each side. Another box about the size of a large textbook houses the electronics and the interface to the computer. All of the “looking” is done on the computer screen.

The physics department taught nanotechnology using the new AFM for the first time this quarter. They plan on offering the class every two years in the future. In the few months the department has had the AFM, they have already used it to work on a joint project with a group at University of Washington.

“I am very grateful for the support we received from our alumni and Academic Administration,” says Ekkens. “They gave us the means to purchase this fabulous technology that will make classes much more real and hands-on in the future.”

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