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Fast Probes Outmeasure AFM

Photonics.com
Apr 2008
ATLANTA, April 18, 2008 -- A new method for material characterization at the nanoscale integrates probe technology based on flexible membranes with a traditional atomic force microscopy (AFM) system to measure multiple properties of biomaterials and other materials simultaneously, at speeds up to 100 times faster than conventional AFM.

The force sensing integrated readout and active tip (Firat) probe can replace traditional AFM for applications such as fast topographic imaging, quantitative material characterization and single-molecule mechanics measurements, the researchers said, and for simultaneously measuring the adhesion, stiffness, elasticity and viscosity of biomolecules or materials.
FiratResearchers.jpg
Georgia Tech mechanical engineering professor Levent Degertekin (left) shows the adapted AFM holder while graduate student Guclu Onaran points to an image of the Firat probe scanning a sample. The front monitor displays the topography of a sample obtained by the Firat probe at a speed of 2 fps, nearly 100 times faster than the normal AFM. (Georgia Tech photo by Gary Meek)
“Our probes attach directly to AFM systems currently on the market and can collect topography measurements at least 50 times faster than traditional cantilevers because they use electrostatic forces between the membrane and an electrode to move the tip,” said Levent Degertekin, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The research team also includes Guclu Onaran and Hamdi Torun, graduate students in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

In current AFM systems, the sample surface is scanned by a cantilever with a sharp tip just a few nanometers in diameter at the end. An optical beam is bounced off the cantilever tip to measure the deflection of the cantilever as the sharp tip moves over the surface and interacts with the material being analyzed to determine the topography of the surface.

The new probe replaces the cantilever with a drum-like membrane from which a tip extends to scan the material sample. In one scanning mode, as the tip moves above a surface, it lightly taps the material. With each tap, the instrument gathers precise information about both the tip’s position and the forces acting on it, sensing the shape of the material and how stiff and sticky it is. (See also: New AFM Device Revolutionizes Nanoimaging
AFMholder.jpg
An AFM holder adapted so that the Firat probe can be used on existing AFM systems. The Firat probe can simultaneously measure topography and material properties including adhesion, stiffness, elasticity and viscosity. (Georgia Tech photo by Gary Meek)
An output signal is generated only when there is an interaction force on the probe. In other words, transient interaction forces can be measured during each ‘tap’ of the tip with high resolution and without any background signal.

In the Feb. 27 issue of the journal Nanotechnology, the researchers described using the Firat probe to characterize the elasticity, surface energy and adhesion hysteresis of three polymers and a silicon sample. The quantitative results were mapped in addition to topography.

Firat probes made of dielectric materials with embedded actuation electrodes have also been designed for operation in liquids. The design of these membrane-based probes also makes them relatively easy to arrange in arrays in which each probe can move independently. One application of such an array is fast parallel measurements of forces between biological molecules.

In collaboration with Cheng Zhu, Regents’ Professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, Degertekin is using the probe to measure the force between two interacting biological molecules and unbinding forces between two molecules.

By testing different molecules and buffer solutions, researchers can determine the probability of molecule adhesion, a process that requires many repetitive measurements. This has implications in drug discovery, where determining how frequently certain soft biological molecules adhere to each other is important.

“Rather than moving a single cantilever up and down a thousand times, we have developed a membrane that would allow parallel measurements of molecules to get thousands of measurements at one time,” said Degertekin.

The new technique was described in the Feb. 27 issue of Nanotechnology. For different applications, Degertekin can adjust the stiffness of the membranes.
GTimage.jpg
5 µm x 5 µm tapping-mode atomic force microscopy images taken in four seconds with the Firat probe (top) and the regular AFM tip (bottom). After four seconds, the 256-line Firat image is complete while the regular image contains just four lines of data. (Georgia Tech photo by Levent Degertekin)
“The best mechanical measurements of surfaces or biomolecules are obtained when the probe stiffness matches the sample stiffness,” said Degertekin. “If you use a piezoelectric or any other linear actuator, you don’t have that phenomenon -- you cannot soften things.”

By electrically changing the spring constant of the Firat probe, Degertekin can adjust the stiffness of the membranes, providing the ability to use the same probe to identify the mechanical properties of different samples -- some soft and some stiff. That research was published in the December 2007 issue of the journal Applied Physics Letters.

“We know these probes improve the speed of AFM scans and provide increased information about a sample,” said Degertekin. “The next step is to batch fabricate them so that all researchers using AFM systems can benefit from these probes.”

Details of the Firat probe and its biological applications were presented at the American Physical Society meeting in March.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

For more information, visit: www.gatech.edu


GLOSSARY
cantilever
A projecting beam or other structure supported only at one end.
dielectric
Exhibiting the characteristic of materials that are electrical insulators or in which an electric field can be sustained with a minimum dispersion of power. They exhibit nonlinear properties, such as anisotropy of conductivity or polarization, or saturation phenomena.
nanotechnology
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
probe
Acronym for profile resolution obtained by excitation. In its simplest form, probe involves the overlap of two counter-propagating laser pulses of appropriate wavelength, such that one pulse selectively populates a given excited state of the species of interest while the other measures the increase in absorption due to the increase in the degree of excitation.
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