Scanning tunneling microscope

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A scanning tunneling microscope (STM) is an instrument for imaging surfaces at the atomic level. Its development in 1981 earned its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer (at IBM Zürich), the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986.[1][2] For an STM, good resolution is considered to be 0.1 nm lateral resolution and 0.01 nm depth resolution.[3] With this resolution, individual atoms within materials are routinely imaged and manipulated. The STM can be used not only in ultra high vacuum but also in air, water, and various other liquid or gas ambients, and at temperatures ranging from near zero kelvin to a few hundred degrees Celsius.[4]

The STM is based on the concept of quantum tunneling. When a conducting tip is brought very near to the surface to be examined, a bias (voltage difference) applied between the two can allow electrons to tunnel through the vacuum between them. The resulting tunneling current is a function of tip position, applied voltage, and the local density of states (LDOS) of the sample.[4] Information is acquired by monitoring the current as the tip's position scans across the surface, and is usually displayed in image form. STM can be a challenging technique, as it requires extremely clean and stable surfaces, sharp tips, excellent vibration control, and sophisticated electronics.



First, a voltage bias is applied and the tip is brought close to the sample by some coarse sample-to-tip control, which is turned off when the tip and sample are sufficiently close. At close range, fine control of the tip in all three dimensions when near the sample is typically piezoelectric, maintaining tip-sample separation W typically in the 4-7 Å range, which is the equilibrium position between attractive (3<W<10Å) and repulsive (W<3Å) interactions[4]. In this situation, the voltage bias will cause electrons to tunnel between the tip and sample, creating a current that can be measured. Once tunneling is established, the tip's bias and position with respect to the sample can be varied (with the details of this variation depending on the experiment) and data is obtained from the resulting changes in current.

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