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Microsc Res Tech. 1999 Mar 1;44(5):312-26.

Quality assessment of atomic force microscopy probes by scanning electron microscopy: correlation of tip structure with rendered images.

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Department of Pathology, and Cell Imaging Facility, University of Vermont, Burlington 05405, USA.


While image quality from instruments such as electron microscopes, light microscopes, and confocal laser scanning microscopes is mostly influenced by the alignment of optical train components, the atomic force microscope differs in that image quality is highly dependent upon a consumable component, the scanning probe. Although many types of scanning probes are commercially available, specific configurations and styles are generally recommended for specific applications. For instance, in our area of interest, tapping mode imaging of biological constituents in fluid, double ended, oxide-sharpened pyramidal silicon nitride probes are most often employed. These cantilevers contain four differently sized probes; thick- and thin-legged 100 microm long and thick- and thin-legged 200 microm long, with only one probe used per cantilever. In a recent investigation [Taatjes et al. (1997) Cell Biol. Int. 21:715-726], we used the scanning electron microscope to modify the oxide-sharpened pyramidal probe by creating an electron beam deposited tip with a higher aspect ratio than unmodified tips. Placing the probes in the scanning electron microscope for modification prompted us to begin to examine the probes for defects both before and after use with the atomic force microscope. The most frequently encountered defect was a mis-centered probe, or a probe hanging off the end of the cantilever. If we had difficulty imaging with a probe, we would examine the probe in the scanning electron microscope to determine if any defects were present, or if the tip had become contaminated during scanning. Moreover, we observed that electron beam deposited tips were blunted by the act of scanning a hard specimen, such as colloidal gold with the atomic force microscope. We also present a mathematical geometric model for deducing the interaction between an electron beam deposited tip and either a spherical or elliptical specimen. Examination of probes in the scanning electron microscope may assist in interpreting images generated by the atomic force microscope.

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