Credit: University of Texas at Dallas

Topics: Instrumentation, Modern Physics, Nanotechnology, Quantum Mechanics, Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

A University of Texas at Dallas graduate student, his advisor and industry collaborators believe they have addressed a long-standing problem troubling scientists and engineers for more than 35 years: How to prevent the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope from crashing into the surface of a material during imaging or lithography.

Details of the group's solution appeared in the January issue of the journal Review of Scientific Instruments, which is published by the American Institute of Physics.

Scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs) operate in an ultra-high vacuum, bringing a fine-tipped probe with a single atom at its apex very close to the surface of a sample. When voltage is applied to the surface, electrons can jump or tunnel across the gap between the tip and sample.

"Think of it as a needle that is very sharp, atomically sharp," said Farid Tajaddodianfar, a mechanical engineering graduate student in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. "The microscope is like a robotic arm, able to reach atoms on the sample surface and manipulate them."

The problem is, sometimes the tungsten tip crashes into the sample. If it physically touches the sample surface, it may inadvertently rearrange the atoms or create a "crater," which could damage the sample. Such a "tip crash" often forces operators to replace the tip many times, forfeiting valuable time.

Dr. John Randall is an adjunct professor at UT Dallas and president of Zyvex Labs, a Richardson, Texas-based nanotechnology company specializing in developing tools and products that fabricate structures atom by atom. Zyvex reached out to Dr. Reza Moheimani, a professor of mechanical engineering, to help address STMs' tip crash problem. Moheimani's endowed chair was a gift from Zyvex founder James Von Ehr MS'81, who was honored as a distinguished UTD alumnus in 2004.

"What they're trying to do is help bring atomically precise manufacturing into reality," said Randall, who co-authored the article with Tajaddodianfar, Moheimani and Zyvex Labs' James Owens. "This is considered the future of nanotechnology, and it is extremely important work."

Microscopy breakthrough paves the way for atomically precise manufa..., The University of Texas at Dallas

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