Since the invention of the atomic force microscope (AFM) in 1986 by Nobel laureate Gerd Binnig, the tool has been employed to advance the science of materials in many ways, from nanopatterning (dip-pen nanolithography) to the imaging of surfaces and nano-objects such as carbon nanotubes, DNA, proteins and cells. In all these applications, the quality and integrity of the tip used to obtain the images or interrogate materials is paramount.
A common problem in atomic force microscopy is the deterioration of the tip apex as surfaces are scanned. To overcome this problem, a team of scientists from Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory report the microfabrication of monolithic ultra-nano-crystalline diamond (UNCD) cantilevers with tips exhibiting properties similar to single-crystal diamond. Their results are published in the Aug. 9 issue of Small, a journal dedicated to breakthroughs in nanoscience and engineering (http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/smll.200500028).
Diamond, the hardest known material, is probably the optimal tip material for many applications. In addition to hardness, diamond is stiff, biocompatible and wear resistant. Until now, commercially available diamond AFM tips are either glued to a microcantilever (a very slow and non-scalable manufacturing approach) or made by coating a silicon tip manufactured using conventional microfabrication techniques. Chemical vapor deposition (CVD) techniques for growing thin films of synthetic diamond typically do not produce single-crystal films, in which atoms are all oriented in a regular lattice. UNCD, a material discovered at Argonne in the 1990s, is the closest diamond atomic structure in which the material is organized in very small grains (a few nanometers in size) leading to smooth surfaces easy to mold and shape by microfabrication techniques. The similarity of UNCD to single-crystal diamond and its superiority to silicon, silicon carbide and other micro- and nanoelectromechanical systems (MEMS and NEMS) materials, in the context of strength, toughness and wear performance, has been established.
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