The World's First AFM on a Chip

ICSPI makes the nGauge: the world's smallest, simplest and most affordable atomic force microscope



3-dimensional images down to the nanoscale, in minutes

AFMs are one of the most widely used instruments for measuring surfaces at the micro- and nanoscale. AFMs work kind of like a record player by scanning a small probe tip across the surface of a material. Unlike other microscopes, AFM collects 3-dimensional data of the surface down to the nanometre. A nanometre is smaller than the diameter of a strand of DNA.

Watch the animation below to see our AFM—the nGauge—scan the “pits” of a DVD. The bright, golden ovals in the scan are the actual data encoded on the DVD (the pits). Those pits are 110 nm tall and the size of the scan is 10 µm x 10 µm. To put that into perspective, the side of a grain of sand is 500 µm x 500 µm, or 2500 times bigger.

 The nGauge AFM scanning the surface of a DVD. The scan in the video is sped up for brevity. A normal scan of a DVD takes about two minutes.

The nGauge AFM scanning the surface of a DVD. The scan in the video is sped up for brevity. A normal scan of a DVD takes about two minutes.

The World’s First AFM on a Chip

AFMs are normally expensive instruments that use bulky, high-power control electronics, scanners and sensors that wear out over time, and time-consuming laser alignment procedures and warm-up times. AFMs are also usually very complicated to operate.

Over the course of nearly 10 years of research and development at the University of Waterloo with the support of DARPA, ICSPI has integrated all the components of a normal AFM — the fine XYZ scanners and the nanoscale sensors —  onto a single 1 mm x 1 mm silicon chip using technology known as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS).

The result is the nGauge AFM—the world’s first AFM on a chip.

 A conventional AFM on a vibration-isolation table.

A conventional AFM on a vibration-isolation table.

 The nGauge AFM unit with a Canadian quarter for scale.

The nGauge AFM unit with a Canadian quarter for scale.


The Smallest, Simplest and Most Affordable AFM

The nGauge AFM has many benefits over conventional systems, including: dramatically lower cost, extremely simple operation, no laser alignment or warm-up time, greater vibration immunity, unmatched portability, and lower drift (steadier results).

Read more about the benefits of small AFMs on our blog and about how our technology works.

 All the components of an AFM are integrated onto a single chip. This chip is the entire AFM.

All the components of an AFM are integrated onto a single chip. This chip is the entire AFM.

 The moving micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) control the probe tip.

The moving micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) control the probe tip.

Our mission at ICSPI is to lower the barriers to entry to nanotechnology by making the tools accessible to everyone.


The nGauge is trusted by universities, startups, small-medium businesses and the Fortune 500

“The ICSPI nGauge AFM has to be seen in action to be believed! We were quite skeptical that a small University based start-up could develop such a miniature and low cost tool that outperforms many commercial instruments that cost 10–100 times more and occupy 10–50 times more space. After seeing a live demo of the nGauge in action we had to have one. We have been using the nGauge for the last several months in regular day to day production verification and quality control and have been blown away by its performance, ease of use and portability. The tool easily saves us several thousand dollars a month in AFM usage fees at third party labs, while giving the added benefit of having AFM capabilities in house and on-demand. Beyond the use of the nGauge as a research tool we are also keenly excited for its potential to integrate into inline production monitoring for process control, a capability that has never been possible before.” - Dr. Michael Helander, CEO, OTI Lumionics


"The nGauge system is more compact than a conventional AFM, making it possible to perform nanometer-scale metrology in tight spaces or directly on top of large samples.  These tools may find many applications in manufacturing environments." - Dr. Zoran Jandric, Research Staff, Seagate Research


“I have worked with ICSPI and their MEMS-based AFM technology for almost two years now and I can attest that that this technology is extremely reliable and can produce images that rival much larger and more expensive AFM systems. I believe that this technology has the potential to revolutionize in-line process metrology by allowing us to directly integrate AFMs into a wide variety of semiconductor manufacturing tools.” - Professor Michael Cullinan, University of Texas at Austin


ICSPI and the nGauge AFM in the news



+ How do you pronounce ICSPI and nGauge?

ICSPI is pronounced "eye-see-spy" and nGauge is pronounced the same way as "engage".

+ How is nGauge different from a conventional AFM?

nGauge AFM chips are tiny moving machines called MEMS. These microscopic devices have moving parts capable of positioning an integrated tip with high precision in the X, Y, and Z directions. The AFM chips also integrate a piezoresistive sensor for measuring tip-sample interaction forces. Conventional AFMs use individual external X, Y, and Z piezoelectric scanners to position a separate tip using an external laser sensing system. See our Intro Blog or our Scaling Blog for more details.

+ How long does a tip last?

nGauge tips are made of hard and durable aluminum oxide. The number of approaches, the scan resolution and the nature of the sample will all affect the lifetime of the tip, so it's difficult to provide an exact lifetime.

We did an experiment where we scanned the same sample over 700 times and the images showed no visible wear. Read more about tip wear in our blog post.

+ How do you replace the tip?

Unlike conventional AFMs where you would replace only the tip when it breaks or wears out, single-chip AFMs are fully integrated but designed to be disposable. If the chip were to break, simply swap the AFM chip out for a new one. This means that every time you replace the chip you get a brand new tip as well as fresh scanners and sensors. As new breakthroughs in chip design occur, you will always be able to stay up to date with the latest improvements in tip shape, scan range, scanner linearity, and sensor performance.

+ How much does it cost to replace the chip?

A pack of 12 nGauge AFM chips costs $2400 or $200 each. Smaller quantities can also be purchased on our online store. Contact us for volume pricing.

+ What scanning modes are available?

The nGauge AFM operates in tapping mode. Topography, phase, and error images are produced during a scan.

The manufacturing process used to make nGauge AFM chips allows for the design of a large variety of SPM modes. We have prototypes of scanning thermal microscopy (SThM), scanning microwave microscopy (SMM), Kelvin Probe force microscopy (KPFM), and FM-AFM (frequency-modulation), and all chips have a conductive path to the tip which could support electrical sensing modes. Contact us or sign up to our mailing list if you are interested in other SPM modes.

+ How fast does it scan?

Relatively flat samples allow scan speeds of up to 16 Hz, meaning a 256x256 pixel image will take 16 seconds. Larger sample features require a larger controller effort and more time. A 256x256 pixel image of a typical DVD sample (100 nm tall features on a 750 nm pitch) takes about 2 minutes.

+ Can I image in liquid or vacuum?

These modes are not supported yet. Sign up to our mailing list or contact us if you are interested in these modes.

+ Can I image graphene or other single-atom materials?

The maximum RMS noise in the vertical direction is 1 nm, so features smaller than 1 nm cannot currently be measured with the nGauge. We are constantly improving the nGauge. Sign up to our mailing list if you would like to keep up to date.

+ Can the nGauge generate force-distance curves?

The nGauge operates in tapping mode (a non-contact mode) only, which means that the nGauge can generate amplitude-distance and phase-distance curves. The data from these curves can be used to generate force-distance curves.

Please contact us if you are interested in generating force-distance curves.

+ Can I perform nanoindentation studies with the nGauge?

The nGauge operates in tapping mode (a non-contact mode) only so it cannot be used to perform nanoindentation, which requires contact mode operation. Contact us if you are interested in keeping up to date with our progress.

+ Do you ship internationally?

Yes we do. Please contact us for exact shipping fees.