MEMS-based AFMs by the thousands for atomic-level wafer probing/imaging

March 20, 2017 // By Julien Happich
A spin-off company from the University of Waterloo, ten-year old Canadian startup ICSPI Corp,. initiated its research on MEMS-based Atomic Force Microscopes in 2007. It published its first tangible contact mode AFM results in 2011 and receiving millions of dollar worth of funding through different research grants as it progressed towards its goal, most notably from DARPA and the Ontario Research Fund.

Along these years, the company has refined and patented its technology, creating a full 3-axis MEMS-based AFM probe on a 1x1mm silicon chip. The electrothermal actuation they developed (using arrays of thermal bimorph actuators) for both the lateral and the vertical movements of the probe tip does not suffer from creep or hysteresis while achieving high natural frequencies in the kHz range, enabling long-term imaging experiments. It also allows interesting scanning modes, such as simultaneous topographical and thermal metrology, as ICSPI unveiled at the 29th IEEE International Conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems last year.

"It is only over the last couple of years that we were able to make our MEMS AFM probes robust and reliable enough for commercialization", told us Neal Sarkar, Co-Founder of the company during a phone interview.


The full nGauge AFM stage with the quick-mount
scanning probe and a sample to be imaged.

Only a few weeks ago, ICSPI made its first commercial launch with a complete atomic force microscope based on its MEMS AFM tip, the nGauge. The whole unit measures only 70x90x75mm, weighs 450 grams and comes with several scanning range options up 20x20x10μm (xyz). It costs less than $10,000 or a fraction of the price of your typical booth-sized AFM while being fully automated (to approach the sample) and the staff at ICSPI claims the instrument is so simple to operate that a 10-year old can start imaging samples with nanoscale precision in under a minute.