Why AFM?

Atomic force microscopes (AFM) use a very intuitive concept to measure an image. Stretch out our finger, close your eyes, and tap the surface of the desk in front of you in a raster pattern. If you recorded the height at which your finger touches something in each point you would get a 3D image of the mess on your desk! Now use a pencil instead of your finger and raster it carefully. You just increased the resolution of your hand-microscope! Now imagine shrinking the probe (the pencil) >100,000 times, controlling its movement precisely with piezoelectric elements, and detecting it touching the surface of a sample with a laser and a photodetector. That’s how an AFM works.

Thanks to progress in engineering and manufacturing of the components, all of this is becoming easier to control and more affordable. Through our partnership with AFMWorkshop you can buy AFMs starting at $30,000, and with a very small probe that costs about $20 you can scan DNA. Yes, YOU can do that, it’s not too complicated anymore and we’ll train you. Now you’re Alice and I just showed you a rabbit hole that leads to the world of nanoscience! (Or Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania for the younger crowd.)

So what’s so interesting about “nano”?

Sooo many things! The most advanced semiconductor chips we’re reading about contain structures a few nanometers in width. Too abstract? How about the glossy photo paper you printed family pictures on? Yes, it’s a nanomaterial. The proteins in the egg white you ate for breakfast. The DNA in your cells and the machinery that copies it. CRISPR. Viruses that infect your cells. Gene therapy. You are surrounded by nanoscience and you didn’t know, because you didn’t have access to a microscope with sufficient resolution! But now you can…

The surface of glossy photo printer paper (the dots are particles about 20-30 nm in diameter).

Egg white proteins (mostly ovalbumin) stuck to the inside of an egg shell.

DNA strands extracted from a soil sample.

The scale of things

First we need to understand the scale at which we operate and how small these objects are. The smallest unit most of us are familiar with is the millimeter and we’ll jump about a tenth in size. The width of a hair is about 100 µm (100 micrometers = a tenth of a millimeter), the average human cell is about 15 µm, and the average bacterium is about 1 µm. From there we get to the average virus at 100 nm (100 nanometers = a tenth of a micrometer), down to proteins (hemoglobin at about 5 nm) and the DNA helix (2.4 nm wide). The DNA in your cells is a million times smaller than packing twine! (Check the numbers here)

To put it another way, if you were a giant (a million times bigger), to you planet earth would be the size of a school bus, your fingertips would cover a city, humans would be the size of your bacteria, and their twine would be the width of your DNA.

There is an entire city on the tip of your finger and you didn’t know it existed.

Different types of bacteria on skin cells. 50 µm is about half the width of a hair.

What do we use it for?

As you see, there is a nano-world out there that was only accessible to organizations that can afford to buy a million dollar microscope, house it in an advanced imaging facility, have it operated by scientists with advanced degrees, and maintain it for tens of thousand dollars annually.

Here we have AFMs that cost as much as the average new car, are self-maintained, and that an undergraduate student can set up and operate in her or his garage.

So what do we do? We teach students as early as high school to do hands-on nanotechnology projects, give researchers at smaller organizations access to nanoscale imaging, and give small businesses the capabilities to develop and test nanotechnology products completely in-house.

We’re excited to show you more examples and teach you how to do it yourself!