If something is too small to see, how can you figure out what it looks like? That’s the problem scientists faced when they wanted to study the nanoscale (1 to 10 nanometers). They had to build completely new instruments that let them interact with a surface at the nanoscale.
The first scanning probe microscope (SPM), the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), was invented in 1981. Its creators won the Nobel Prize only 5 years later. Generally, SPMs, like the Atomic Force Microscope, gather information on how an atomically sharp tip, a tip with just a few atoms at the very end, changes as it interacts with or probes a surface. This information is used to create images with nanoscale resolution. While not photographs of the surface, these contour map-like images do help scientists ‘see’ nanoscale structure and topography.
Beyond just mapping the nanoscale structure of a surface, scanning probe microscopes can measure the strength of single chemical bonds, magnetic interactions or temperature at the nanoscale, and even move around individual atoms. Before working on this project, graphics design student Sarah Cook “didn’t know anything about nanotechnology other than what [she] had seen in SciFi films and television shows.” And while she struggled with visualizing all the different properties scientists are able to measure at the nanoscale, she now realizes “there were so many different aspects of nanotechnology that could be ‘seen’ with different tips.”
Want to learn more about nanotechnology? Check out "What's a Quantum Dot?", “What Can Nanotechnology Do For You?”, “How Can Nanotechnology Save Energy?”, and “How Will Nanotechnology Improve Your Health?”
Article by: Dr. Quinn Spadola who serves as Program Manager for Education and Outreach as a member of the contract staff in the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office