Electrical AFM Modes

Electrical Measurement Modes

AFM can probe a wide variety of electrical properties of materials and surfaces. These methods operate either in static mode or dynamic mode, depending on the information being sought. Probing properties such as current, conductance, surface potential, and capacitance are increasingly important in a number of applications including research on semiconductors, solar and battery cells, conductive polymers, and nanoelectronics. These applications have in common that the electrical properties of increasingly miniaturized devices and features need to be measured. Note that all these methods require specialized tips, usually in the form of a conventional silicon AFM cantilever coated with an electrically conductive coating. Probes made of conducting diamond are also suitable for some of these methods. All these modes provide simultaneous topography and electrical property data. A review of some of the main electrical modes and properties are given here.

These electrical modes also often take advantage of interlaced and dual pass scan methods, in which the probe measures topography on the forward or first pass and then the probe is lifted a prescribed distance away from the surface on the backward or second pass, optionally following the topography (contour) of the sample, as shown in the lift modes section.

Conductive Atomic Force Microscopy (C-AFM)

This is a static mode method where both the current distribution and topography of a surface are mapped simultaneously. It is similar to scanning tunneling microscopy as in both modes a bias voltage is applied between tip and sample, and the tunneling current is measured between the two. However, the advantage of C-AFM, which uses a conductive cantilever as opposed to a sharp metallic wire, is that it provides topography information and current information independently. Single point measurements that measure the current vs. voltage curves (commonly referred to as IV curves) can also be collected in this mode to probe the detailed electrical properties at a position.

Current measurements in air may prove challenging. The contact area between tip and sample is very small (diameter in the 10nm range). Therefore the current density (current per surface area unit) can become very high, rapidly hampering the conductive properties of the cantilever coating. Here a resistor inline with the sample reduces this risk of highly conductive samples.

Surface contamination and a water film between tip and sample commonly present at ambient conditions additionally reduce reliability and repeatability of C-AFM: Only a few nanometers of debris on the tip can block the flow of electrical current. Therefore higher forces are sometimes needed, which require harder tip materials or coatings like conductive diamond-like coatings or platinum silicide.

Such problems are reduced in vacuum systems, like in the example below, recorded in the vacuum of an SEM. The gradual effect of electron beam irradiation on topography and conductivity of a Pt(C) film was measured in situ with AFSEM™. The reduction of height shows the compacting of the film with irradiation dose. At the same time, an increase in local conductivity was observed at higher doses.

3D topography of Pt(C) film

3D topography of Pt(C) film irradiated with different electron beam doses

current through Pt(C) sample

Current through the film of the area inside the blue rectangle in the topography

C-AFM is available for all Nanosurf AFM product lines.

Piezoelectric Force Microscopy (PFM)

This static mode based method is geared towards the study of ferroelectric or piezoelectric materials, which are materials that respond mechanically to the application of an electric field. This mode measures topography simultaneously with mechanical response of the material when an electric voltage is applied with a conductive AFM tip. A sharp conductive AFM tip is brought into contact with the sample and an AC voltage is applied between the tip and sample. The sample will either expand or contract oscillatory due to this applied voltage. The sample motion is then tracked by the cantilever deflection, which is detected with a lock-in amplifier. The amplitude gives information on the piezoelectric tensor of the material and the phase provides information on the polarization direction.

Shown below is a PFM image of a common piezoelectric material, lead zirconate titanate (PZT). The topograph is shown on the left and a 3D view on the right where the coloring represents the piezo response. The phase clearly reveals striped domains inside the grain that were not visible in the topography.

Topography of lead zirconate titanate (PZT) Piezoelectric Force Microscopy on lead zirconate titanate (PZT)
Topography measurement on lead zirconate titanate (PZT)
Piezoelectric Force Microscopy on lead zirconate titanate (PZT)

PFM is available for the CoreAFM and FlexAFM product lines.

Electrostatic Force Microscopy (EFM)

This mode is the electrical equivalent to MFM and operates in phase imaging mode, but now used for imaging variations in the electric field of the substrate. When scanning the tip lifted above the surface (typically only a few tens of nanometers), a voltage is applied between tip and sample to create a long-range electrostatic force.

EFM images reveal information about surface potential and charge distribution from the phase image: with increasing magnitude of the potential difference between tip and sample, the resonance frequency drops, causing reduction in phase. Thus, a lower phase indicates a larger (absolute) potential difference. This also means that the contrast can be varied with the applied voltage. The example below demonstrates that the phase contrast can be inverted by changing the potential. In this measurement aluminum pedestals on top of a gold substrate were imaged with 3V (top) and -3V (bottom) tip voltage in contour following EFM mode.