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Review of Scientific Instruments

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Viscoelasticity, Scanning probe microscopy, Fluid dynamics


Full understanding of the physics underlying the striking changes in viscoelasticity, relaxation time, and phase transitions that mesoscopic fluid-like films undergo at solid-liquid interfaces, or under confinement between two sliding solid boundaries, constitutes one of the major challenges in condensed matter physics. Their role in the imaging process of solid substrates by scanning probe microscopy (SPM) is also currently controversial. Aiming at improving the reliability and versatility of instrumentation dedicated to characterize mesoscopic films, a noninvasive whispering-gallery acoustic sensing (WGAS) technique is introduced; its application as feedback control in SPM is also demonstrated. To illustrate its working principle and potential merits, WGAS has been integrated into a SPM that uses a sharp tip attached to an electrically driven 32-kHz piezoelectric tuning fork (TF), the latter also tighten to the operating microscope's frame. Such TF-based SPMs typically monitor the TF's state of motion by electrical means, hence subjected to the effects caused by the inherent capacitance of the device (i.e., electrical resonance differing from the probe's mechanical resonance). Instead, the novelty of WGAS resides in exploiting the already existent microscope's frame as an acoustic cavity (its few centimeter-sized perimeter closely matching the operating acoustic wavelength) where standing-waves (generated by the nanometer-sized oscillations of the TF's tines) are sensitively detected by an acoustic transducer (the latter judiciously placed around the microscope's frame perimeter for attaining maximum detection). This way, WGAS is able to remote monitoring, via acoustic means, the nanometer-sized amplitude motion of the TF's tines. (This remote-detection method resembles the ability to hear faint, but still clear, levels of sound at the galleries of a cathedral, despite the extraordinary distance location of the sound source.) In applications aiming at characterizing the dynamics of fluid-like mesoscopic films trapped under shear between the TF probe and the solid substrate, WGAS capitalizes on the well-known fact that the TF's motion is sensitively affected by the shear-forces (the substrate and its adsorbed mesocopic film playing a role) exert on its tip, which occurs when the latter is placed in close proximity to a solid substrate. Thus, WGAS uses a TF as an efficient transducer sandwiched between (i) the probe (that interact with the substrate and mesoscopic film), and (ii) the acoustic cavity (where an assessment of the probe mechanical motion is obtained). In short, WGAS has capability for monitoring probe-sample shear-force interactions via remote acoustic sensing means. In another application, WGAS can also be used as feedback control of the probe's vertical position in SPM. In effect, it is observed that when the microscope's probe stylus approaches a sample, a monotonic change of the WGAS acoustic signal occurs in the last ∼20 nm before the probe touches the solid sample's surface, which allows implementing an automated-control of the probe-sample distance for safely scanning the tip across the sample surface. This principle is demonstrated by imaging the topographic features of a standard sample. Finally, it is worth to highlight that this alignment-free acoustic-based method offers a very direct assessment of the probe's mechanical motion state (the mechanical and the WGAS acoustic frequency responses coincide), which makes the WGAS a convenient metrology tool for studying surface interactions, including interfacial friction at the nanometer scale.


Article appears in Review of Scientific Instruments ( and is copyrighted (2011) by the American Institute of Physics, and can be found at: This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Institute of Physics.



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