Advanced scanning force microscopy

We are an interdisciplinary group of scanning force microscopy (SFM) enthusiasts, constantly exploring the limits of this fascinating microscopy method. The goal is to understand the underlying physics of nanoscale systems. One focus is on novel photovoltaic materials and devices (so-called perovskite solar cells). Here we developed new methods to study the potential distribution across the different layers of a operating solar cell device. Furthermore, we were the first to report the existence of ferro-elastic domains in perovskite films.

To explore the limits of SFM, we developed a low-noise microscope. This setup is optimized for operation in liquid media and can map the surface topography with atomic resolution. Furthermore, it provides a very flexible platform for the fast implementation of new operation modes including electrical or photothermal excitation or multifrequency excitation and detection. Using this microscope we want to explore fundamental mechanisms of molecular interactions at solid-liquid interfaces.

Low noise SFM

Low-noise SFM (from left to right): comparison of noise amplitude as a function of frequency on a commercial SFM and our homebuilt SFM (image in the middle). 3D topography reliefs of the atomic structure of a calcite surface and the molecular structure of a DNA Origami sample (courtesy of T. Weil, MPI-P).

What is scanning force microscopy?

A scanning force microscope, often also called atomic force microscope (AFM) is a device that detects the forces between a tiny and very sharp tip and a sample surface. These forces originate from the interaction of the atoms in the tip apex and the atoms on the sample surface, e.g. via electrostatic and van-der-Waals forces. By raster-scanning the surface, the SFM can "feel" the structure underneath the tip and the surface topography can be reconstructed.

To detect these forces, the tip is positioned at the end of a rectangular silicon beam called cantilever that is much smaller that a human hair (see image below). Any force on the tip deflects the beam up or down. This deflection is detected by a laser beam that is reflected from the backside of the silicon beam. The limit for the noise detection is the noise in the deflection signal. This noise has two contributions:

  • Detector noise: Noise caused by fluctuations in the laser intensity and the electronic noise in the detector. This contribution can be significantly reduced by the SFM design as demonstrated in the noise graph above.
  • Thermal noise: thermal fluctuations let the cantilever vibrate (the two broad peaks in the noise graph above). This noise sets the fundamental detection limit for a given cantilever.
SFM cantilever vs. human hair

Job opportunities

I am constantly looking for highly motivated people for bachelor-, master- and PhD projects and postdocs, ideally with knowledge or experience in the fields of scanning probe microscopy, perovskite solar cells, programming and electronics. However, right now, there are no free positions available in my group. If you are still interested, you should apply for external funding. I am happy to help with the application process(a good starting point is here: DAAD Scholarship database).


Stefan Weber
MPI for Polymer Research, Physics of Interfaces
Ackermannweg 10
55128 Mainz
Tel.: +49 6131 379-115
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