One of the persistent challenges in 21st century metrology is the need to measure ever-more-detailed properties of ever-smaller things, from microchip features to subcomponents of biological cells. That’s why, four years ago, a team of NIST scientists patented (link is external) the design for a nanoscale probe system that can simultaneously measure the shape, electrical characteristics, and optical response of sample regions a few tens of nanometers (nm, billionths of a meter) wide. 100 nm is about one-thousandth the width of a human hair.
Now the researchers from NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory are closing in on a working prototype. The newest version of the device, which has a probe tip that functions as an ultra-tiny LED “spotlight,” holds great promise for identifying cancer-prone tissue, testing materials for improved solar cells, and providing a new way to put circuits on microchips, among other uses.
The Integrated Near-Field Optoelectronic (INFO) system has the general configuration of an atomic force microscope (AFM), in which a probe tip on the end of a tiny cantilever beam passes a few nanometers over the surface of a sample, recording exact details of its morphology. But the metal-plated INFO probe also serves as a transmitter that projects microwaves into the sample as well as a receiving antenna that detects the altered microwaves coming back out. The nature of that alteration reveals electrical and chemical properties of the material.
Sub-microscopic LEDs Shed New Light on Advanced Materials, Ben Stein, NIST