Shrinking the Atomic Force Microscope

Editors’ Note: This feature appears as it was published in the spring 2017 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. Titles or faculty members listed may have changed since that time.
A MEMS-based atomic force microscope developed by UTD engineers is about 1 square centimeter in size. Here it is attached to a small printed circuit board.


UT Dallas Researchers reduced electromechanical components of an atomic force microscope (AFM), dramatically shrinking the size — and possibly the price tag — of the high-tech scientific tool.

“A standard atomic force microscope is a large, bulky instrument, with multiple control loops, electronics and amplifiers,” said Dr. Reza Moheimani, professor of mechanical engineering. “We have managed to miniaturize the electromechanical components onto a single small chip.”

Moheimani and his colleagues describe their prototype device in the February issue of the IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems.

An AFM is used to create detailed three-dimensional images of the surfaces of materials, down to the nanometer scale — that’s roughly on the scale of individual molecules.

“You can get a resolution that is well beyond what an optical microscope can achieve,” said Moheimani, who holds the James Von Ehr Distinguished Chair in Science and Technology in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “It can capture features that are very, very small.”

The UT Dallas team created its prototype on-chip AFM using a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) approach.

“A classic example of MEMS technology are the accelerometers and gyroscopes found in smartphones,” said Dr. Anthony Fowler, a research scientist and one of the article’s co-authors. “Using MEMS technology, accelerometers have shrunk down onto a single chip, which can be manufactured for just a few dollars apiece.”

The MEMS-based AFM is about 1 square centimeter in size, or a little smaller than a dime. It is attached to a small printed circuit board, about half the size of a credit card.

A reduced size and price tag could expand the AFMs’ utility beyond current scientific applications, including use by the semiconductor industry.

“This is one of those technologies where, as they say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ We anticipate finding many applications as the technology matures,” Moheimani said.

In addition to the UT Dallas researchers, Michael Ruppert, a visiting graduate student from the University of Newcastle in Australia, was a co-author of the journal article. Moheimani was Ruppert’s doctoral advisor.

The research has been funded by UT Dallas startup funds, the Von Ehr Distinguished Chair and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.