Scientists from the Centre for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC), the largest scientific research institution in Lithuania, have created a unique way to accelerate the reception of images from an atomic-force microscope. Thanks to their work, images scanned can now be received 4 times faster than was previously possible, and at least 100 times faster than with conventional commercial atomic-force microscopes.
This new technique offers enormous possibilities for expanding the potential of this type of microscope. It is also an important step in the ability of researchers and companies to inspect and analyse products which use nanotechnologies.
Nanotechnology-based products are growing ever more common, and include components used in computers and mobile phones, new generation electric batteries, and medical materials. Particularly during the development phase, the ability to assess, control the quality of and remove any defects from these products is crucial. Hence, the demand for equipment for researching nanotechnology-based products is also increasing.
“One of the most important devices for nanotechnology research is the atomic-force microscope,” explains Dr Artūras Ulčinas, Senior Researcher at the FTMC’s Department of Nanoengineering. “This device works as a several-atom-wide “finger”, which senses the coarseness of a surface on a microscopic level. This “finger” is used to scan the surface under investigation, and an image of the scan is displayed on a computer monitor.” And as Dr Ulčinas points out, the application of these microscopes is wide ranging. “Biologists can look directly at DNA, chemists can analyse individual molecules, and physicists can see atoms and electron orbitals. And nanotechnologists can control the quality of their products at the nanometer level,” says Dr Ulčinas.
Operation speed a major drawback
Prior to the work of the team at FTMC, one of the atomic-force microscope’s major drawbacks was the speed of operation. “While looking for ways to eliminate this drawback, I considered creating a scanning system similar to the one that reads information on computer hard drives,” says Dr Ulčinas. “Despite the fact that the data storage platters spin at an enormous speed, it is still possible to read the data recorded on several nanometer-wide islands. So we created a similar system for the microscope. The essential part of our job was to create an algorithm and the computer software to transform the scanning data into a comprehensible image,” Dr Ulčinas explains.
This work was carried out under a research and experimental development project financed by the Research Council of Lithuania. It will take some time to make this new technique easy to use, but without a doubt, a faster operating speed raises the possibility of a fundamental expansion of the uses of this type of microscope.
The Centre for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC) carries out research on the development of high technologies, and works towards the creation of a stronger knowledge economy both within Lithuania and globally. New prototypes and services, as well as modern industrial programmes, are created in the centre. It also features excellent conditions for business development.
FTMC employs about 700 people. The centre has carried out more than 300 projects commissioned by various businesses, and has contributed to the implementation of the business goals of more than 100 companies.
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