Scanning probe microscopy (SPM) provides nanometer-scale mapping of numerous sample properties in essentially any environment. This unique combination of high resolution and broad applicability has lead to the application of SPM to many areas of science and technology, especially those interested in the structure and properties of materials at the nanometer scale. SPM images are generated through measurements of a tip-sample interaction. A well-characterized tip is the key element to data interpretation and is typically the limiting factor.
Commercially available atomic force microscopy (AFM) tips, integrated with force sensing cantilevers, are microfabricated from silicon and silicon nitride by lithographic and anisotropic etching techniques. The performance of these tips can be characterized by imaging nanometer-scale standards of known dimension, and the resolution is found to roughly correspond to the tip radius of curvature, the tip aspect ratio, and the sample height. Although silicon and silicon nitride tips have a somewhat large radius of curvature, low aspect ratio, and limited lifetime due to wear, the widespread use of AFM today is due in large part to the broad availability of these tips. In some special cases, small asperities on the tip can provide resolution much higher than the tip radius of curvature for low-
samples such as crystal surfaces and ordered protein arrays.
Several strategies have been developed to improve AFM tip performance. Oxide sharpening improves tip sharpness and enhances tip asperities. For high-aspect-ratio samples such as integrated circuits, silicon AFM tips can be modified by focused ion beam (FIB) milling. FIB tips reach three-degree cone angles over lengths of several microns and can be fabricated at arbitrary angles. Other high resolution and high-aspect-ratio tips are produced by electron beam deposition (EBD) in which a carbon spike is deposited onto the tip apex from the background gases in an electron microscope. Finally, carbon nanotubes have been employed as AFM tips. Their nanometer-scale diameter, long length, high stiffness, and elastic buckling properties make carbon nanotubes possibly the ultimate tip material for AFM. Nanotubes can be manually attached to silicon or silicon nitride AFM tips or “grown” onto tips by chemical vapor deposition (CVD), which should soon make them widely available. In scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), the electron tunneling signal decays exponentially with tip-sample separation, so that in principle only the last few atoms contribute to the signal. STM tips are, therefore, not as sensitive to the nanoscale tip geometry and can be made by simple mechanical cutting or electrochemical etching of metal wires. In choosing tip materials, one prefers hard, stiff metals that will not oxidize or corrode in the imaging environment.