Power microscopy for the masses


A new breed of sophisticated, low-cost microscopes is enabling new vision for industry and academe


Electron and scanning probe microscopes-those wonderful machines that allow us to peer at objects on the atomic and nano scales-have traditionally been large and expensive. Increasingly, however, toolmakers are introducing versions of these devices that are smaller (sometimes even portable) and less expensive than ever before as they begin to serve a potentially enormous market.

“It’s part of the same trend you see with all electronics. Instruments are now getting smaller and getting more capabilities squeezed into them,” says Mark Flowers, co-founder of Nanoscience Instruments in Phoenix, Ariz., U.S. distributor of Nanosurf’s portable and tabletop AFMs.

Students, start-ups, and industry

With this new generation of instruments, toolmakers are targeting primarily the education niche that optical microscopes typically fill. “The optical microscope market is about three to four times larger than the electron microscope market worldwide,” says Robert Gordon, vice president of Hitachi High Technologies America nanotechnology business development. Hitachi entered the desktop imaging market in 2006 with its tabletop scanning electron microscope (SEM) TM-1000.

“Before, a lot of these instruments were really off-limits in the lab, only for Ph.D. students and professors and postdocs to use, and often only at the universities with research facilities-the MITs and Stanfords,” says Agilent AFM operations manager Jeff Jones. “One trend we now see is these instruments finding use at state universities that want students to have broader capabilities, teaching universities that aren’t necessarily research-oriented but want to apply for nanotechnology research grants. They want to include AFMs in courses at the undergrad and grad level and want more-advanced instrumentation.”

Hitachi has “over the past one-year period concentrated heavily on the high school, small college, and university markets, and we are a major player and supporter of the government’s initiative to further develop our workforce and enhance our science and technology programs,” says Gordon. “We had always focused on pretty expensive electron microscopes, but now we’re looking into smaller microscopes with higher volumes to compete with optical microscopes and with a very big audience of people.”

Hitachi’s TM-1000 is allowing more schools to compete for nanotech research grants.
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Entering the academic market is also a way of training generations of students in the use of advanced instruments they might use later in their careers. “We’re helping spread the infrastructure,” says Jones.

One key consideration behind entering the academic market, besides price, is ease of use. “Ease of use is not a consideration when you have a Ph.D. student who will spend five years on an instrument, but it is when you have a student for three or six weeks,” adds Jones. “You need something to get students up to speed quickly. You want something like an optical microscope, where anyone can walk up to it and see what he or she is looking for without being an expert in the technique.”

“We’ve also included a curriculum with our instruments that professors can use as part of a microscopy course,” Jones says.

Ease of use is also important in the industrial environment, “where technicians are running samples over and over for quality metrics,” continues Jones.

That’s one reason why start-ups comprise another potentially ripe area for these instruments. About 15 years ago, “AFMs were complicated and expensive. There was no market for ones that were easier to use, because people who used them were experts in the area,” says Paul West, CTO and founder of Pacific Nanotechnology in Santa Clara, Calif. “People now want microscopes to solve problems, as opposed to the microscopes being the project itself.”

“Many start-ups cannot afford the traditional electron microscopes, which cost at least $150,000. So a tabletop microscope is a good entry-level microscope for them to start using,” says Gordon.

“We’re looking into new areas for us, servicing companies in the fields of nanomaterials, the biosciences, such as pharma, and in cosmetics. There’s a lot of business we can gather there,” adds Gordon. “We’ve even found that major semiconductor customers are embracing it, for improving throughput in their failure analysis labs, for instance.”

Pioneers paved the way

One of the earliest companies to produce lower-cost, smaller-size advanced microscopes is Nanosurf in Liestal, Switzerland, spun off from the University of Basel in 1997. Nanosurf’s latest entry-level device, the easyScan 2 AFM, is portable. Its scanner fits in the palm of your hand and has a resolution of 150 x 27 picometers.

“At the time we started, there were only big, complex instruments on the market, operated by very experienced scientists,” says Nanosurf CEO Robert Sum. “We had been approached by high school teachers who had the need for small, easy-to-use microscopes, and we saw the potential there.”

The easyScan can be used on samples other microscopes might find it hard to access, “such as an airplane wing,” Sum says. “When it’s difficult to get the sample to the microscope, you bring the microscope to the sample.”

The easyScan is upgradeable with a variety of different scan heads and software packages, as well as vibration isolation attachments. Other microscopes Nanosurf offers are the portable Mobile S AFM, which includes multiple modes, and the tabletop Nanite, an automated system.

“The easyScan 2 is modular and can start below $15,000, and the Mobile S and Nanite can get closer to $100,000, depending on how they’re configured,” says Nanoscience Instruments’ Flowers.

Nanosurf’s easyScan can work on samples inaccessible to other microscopes.
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NASA researchers have approached Nanosurf to adapt the company’s AFMs for the Phoenix mission to Mars, scheduled for launch in August 2007. “The goal is a 300-gram microscope and 8-watt power consumption to analyze soil and ice samples,” Sum says.

So far Nanosurf has sold more than 1,000 of its STMs and 300 of its AFMs. “We’ve mainly looked at academic customers for the last 10 years,” Sum says.

Flowers adds that more and more industrial customers are emerging. “Time is money, and having an instrument that’s easy to use and accessible at different skill levels is very attractive for industrial quality control and industrial research.”

Another company that entered early into the advanced, lower-cost desktop imaging field is Pacific Nanotechnology. Its Nano-R2, the second generation of the Nano-R SPM for research and educational purposes, can accommodate samples up to a square inch. The Nano-I is a more-specialized tabletop system that uses the same scanner and software, but can accommodate samples as large as 12 inches for industrial applications, such as inspection of wafers, disks, and technical samples.

Pacific Nanotechnology’s systems have a vertical resolution of 0.5 angstroms and a horizontal resolution of 0.5nm. The Nano-R2 sells for $80,000, while the Nano-I retails at $120,000.

Veeco introduced its Caliber to attract a growing market it was not reaching.
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“Our systems are about 50 percent smaller than conventional AFMs and SPMs, at 12 inches x 12 inches x 12 inches,” says West. “They weigh maybe 100lbs.”

One of the main requirements for a desktop AFM or SPM is vibration isolation. “One of the things we incorporate into our devices is a heavy granite block, which helps protect the microscope against vibrations,” West says. Other vibration engineering safeguards remain proprietary information.

Pacific Nanotechnology also provides attachments to help users scan in gaseous environments, as well as heating stages and modes that allow scanning for electrical conductivity, magnetic fields, and other physical properties of samples. These can cost $1,000 to $5,000.

Here come the big guns

Increasingly, microscope giants are entering the field.

For instance, Veeco introduced a new handheld AFM in 2006. “We were seeing a market where we were losing, and now we have the Caliber AFM, which literally sits in the palm of your hand,” says David Rossi, vice president of Veeco’s Nano-Bio Business Unit marketing and business development. The Caliber has near-atomic-level resolution, he adds.

The list price for the Caliber is $57,000 in the U.S. “We’ve already shipped 25 to universities and materials development companies since the September timeframe,” says Rossi. “Our customers at this point are probably about two-thirds academia and one-third industry. It’s interesting: We’re seeing education institutions that would not have purchased a $200,000 instrument buying four or five Calibers for their teaching labs.”

Tabletop AFMs from Veeco include the CP2 and the MultiMode, “the highest-resolution AFM commercially available,” according to Rossi. The MultiMode costs $125,000 to $175,000, depending on the modes it comes with and what size scanner it has, while the CP2 costs from $80,000 to $110,000, also depending on the configuration.

Another industry leader, Agilent, announced its own tabletop imaging system-Agilent 5400 AFM/SPM-in December 2006, “which looks about the size of a classic optical microscope,” says Agilent’s Jones.

“We’ve targeted the market for instruments from $50,000 to $100,000, for both universities, who want more functionality than microscopes costing less than $50,000, but don’t need the bells and whistles for the $100,000 to $200,000 microscopes,” says Jones. “We saw this trend of people getting grants under $100,000, and it seemed like a good market. We’re also shooting for industry, where very pretty high performance is required in testing the same things over and over again but [where they are] not conducting hero experiments.”

Agilent designed its 5400 AFM/SPM for ease of use.
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When compared to the more-expensive Agilent 5500, the 5400 “doesn’t have some environmental control aspects, such as full environmental control or being able to do some of the more-difficult temperature changes, but we do have the ability to upgrade the 5400 to the 5500,” Jones says. “We’ve also completely rewritten the software to make it easier to use and so it can get set up easier.”

“We’re happy with sales. We’ve almost reached double the initial targets for the first quarter,” Jones says.

The 5500 imaging modes, such as the magnetic AC mode, which allows better imaging in fluids, are compatible with the 5400. These modes range in price from a few thousand dollars to $30,000.

Electronics giant Hitachi introduced its TM-1000 last year at a price of $60,000. “That’s similar to an expensive imaging analysis optical microscope from a price standpoint,” says Hitachi’s Gordon. “At the same time, our microscope offers imaging at up to 10,000X, about 1,000 times past the point after which optical microscopes run into difficulties. It also provides much better depth of field and surface topography detail than optical does.”

Hitachi achieved its shrinking trick by miniaturizing the electron column and optics at the heart of an SEM using computer-aided design (CAD). Also, the company used smaller pumps to provide the same quality vacuum as other SEMs. A laptop that contains the software to run the microscope is included.

Intriguingly, unlike conventional SEMs, the TM-1000 does not require metal coatings to observe nonconductive samples. Cutting out this elaborate preparatory step is part of Hitachi’s strategy to make the microscope as simple to use as a digital camera.

“When electron beam-sensitive samples start to charge, which could damage them, the variable pressure mode bleeds a little air into the system to minimize the charge put on any noncoated materials,” Gordon explains.

The TM-1000 does have much lower magnification than more-expensive SEMs. It also has fewer software capabilities, “keeping with the idea that it should be simple to use,” Gordon says. Moreover, unlike other SEMs, the TM-1000 operates only at a fixed voltage of 15kV.

Total production volume for the TM-1000 on a worldwide basis is approaching about 400 units, Gordon says. “We’re interested in going to much higher volumes-possibly 200 units per month,” he adds. In the future, Hitachi will consider attachments that add functionality, such as energy dispersive x-ray analysis or software packages allowing image archiving and database management, while not making the microscope too complicated to use.

Hot on Hitachi’s heels is FEI with its new Phenom, a tabletop electron microscope with magnification capability up to 20,000X. Designed to be easy to operate, Phenom offers a touch-screen monitor. It is currently being sold in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg, with other countries added soon. Suggested applications for it include pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, manufacturing process, quality control testing, and basic research.

Rossi expects the market to grow as the semiconductor and other industries experience increasing metrology demands and the life sciences sector approaches the nano scale.

The devices will also continue toward trends of improved performance, capabilities, and ease of use, West adds.

“I’m very excited about how the market’s growing and about other companies entering it,” Sum says. “In the beginning, there was no competition, and so one wondered whether or not there was a big market here. If other companies are entering, that shows these technologies represent a good direction to go in. Competition’s good.”