Introducing the World's First Microscopic Microscope

 

It’s the 21st century. Microscopes have come a long way since their invention in the 1600s, but the modern advances in power and resolution are so expensive that they are only accessible to elite users. Anyone can buy a $25 USB microscope from Amazon that will magnify a microchip or the eye of an insect, but if you want to see the individual transistors on that chip, or the texture on the surface of that eye, you need a PhD and a quarter-million dollar machine.

This is the problem that we solved at ICSPI. Almost 10 years of DARPA-supported research and collaborations with the University of Waterloo have culminated in a microscope that is as powerful as the most expensive machines, yet is much smaller and simpler, and far more affordable. We’re introducing the world’s first microscopic microscope; the nGauge AFM.

 
The nGauge Atomic Force Microscope

The nGauge Atomic Force Microscope

 

INTRO TO AFM

Atomic Force Microscopes (AFMs) achieve the nanometer scale resolution that is required to observe things like DNA, nanotubes, and atomic lattices; they are widely regarded as workhorse instruments in nanotechnology.  An AFM measures the interaction force between the atoms on a sharp tip and those on the sample.  The tip is scanned over the sample in order to reconstruct an image of the surface topography.

Conventional AFMs are large, expensive and difficult to use, so they reside in advanced research facilities that have remained exclusive to a select number of scientists - until today.  For the first time, an entire AFM instrument has been integrated onto a single chip that is affordable, easy to use, and remarkably robust.  AFMs can now be used by anyone, from the most novice of high-school students to the most advanced practitioners of industrial metrology.

The nGauge system was introduced to make nanoscale imaging accessible to a wide audience, without compromising the resolution, speed, or stability of the instrument.   In fact, although the system is ~100x cheaper than state-of-the-art AFMs, it is actually faster, more robust, and it achieves the same resolution.  All of this has been enabled by aggressively miniaturizing the volume of the instrument by a factor of 1 million.

HOW IT’S MADE

The single-chip AFM is manufactured using a Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) process, which is the same process used to manufacture virtually all electronic components these days. CMOS chips are fabricated with the most precise tolerances available on earth, which means that every single-chip AFM is made with the highest quality. A MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) process is performed on the CMOS chips to release the device from the silicon substrate and create the precise actuators, sensors, and tip required for AFM. This whole process results in a highly integrated instrument capable of extremely high resolution positioning and sensing.  

SEM image of a single-chip AFM. The suspended structures are made of the metal, oxide, and polysilicon layers of the CMOS process.

SEM image of a single-chip AFM. The suspended structures are made of the metal, oxide, and polysilicon layers of the CMOS process.

WHY IT’S BETTER

To investigate samples at the nanometer scale, it makes a lot of sense to use an instrument that is manufactured using microtechnology. We have integrated all of the essential components of an AFM onto a single 1x1mm chip, replacing the bulky scanners and sensors of conventional instruments. Tiny instruments are less susceptible to vibrations, more immune to temperature drifts, and are capable of imaging faster and more precisely than larger tools.  We use state-of-the-art CMOS-MEMS technology to make an AFM on a single chip that may be manufactured in high volumes at low costs.  

THE RESULT

The entire nGauge system is about the size of a baseball and can be used almost anywhere. Setup out-of-the-box takes five minutes and imaging is just as simple. We have eliminated all of the tedious procedures that plague today’s AFMs, like using tweezers to place tiny cantilevers into unwieldy fixtures, and aligning lasers through microscopes.  Just place an AFM Chip onto the stage, insert a sample, and hit “scan”.  In about a minute, a publication quality image will be captured. The system can continue imaging for hours, even days, with minimal drift and no observable tip-wear. We are constantly improving the resolution, speed, and stability of our single-chip instruments and they are all backward-compatible, so you’ll always have access to the most advanced AFM chip on the market.  Whether you’re a student using an AFM for the first time, an advanced metrology user, or a research scientist, the nGauge system was designed to fit your needs.

Images of a butterfly wing, DVD bits, and silicon carbide lattice steps taken with an nGauge AFM. 

Images of a butterfly wing, DVD bits, and silicon carbide lattice steps taken with an nGauge AFM. 

 
ICSPI