The qPlus sensor, a powerful core for the atomic force microscope

Rev Sci Instrum. 2019 Jan;90(1):011101. doi: 10.1063/1.5052264.


Atomic force microscopy (AFM) was introduced in 1986 and has since made its way into surface science, nanoscience, chemistry, biology, and material science as an imaging and manipulating tool with a rising number of applications. AFM can be employed in ambient and liquid environments as well as in vacuum and at low and ultralow temperatures. The technique is an offspring of scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), where the tunneling tip of the STM is replaced by using a force sensor with an attached tip. Measuring the tiny chemical forces that act between the tip and the sample is more difficult than measuring the tunneling current in STM. Therefore, even 30 years after the introduction of AFM, progress in instrumentation is substantial. Here, we focus on the core of the AFM, the force sensor with its tip and detection mechanism. Initially, force sensors were mainly micro-machined silicon cantilevers, mainly using optical methods to detect their deflection. The qPlus sensor, originally based on a quartz tuning fork and now custom built from quartz, is self-sensing by utilizing the piezoelectricity of quartz. The qPlus sensor allows us to perform STM and AFM in parallel, and the spatial resolution of its AFM channel has reached the subatomic level, exceeding the resolution of STM. Frequency modulation AFM (FM-AFM), where the frequency of an oscillating cantilever is altered by the gradient of the force that acts between the tip and the sample, has emerged over the years as the method that provides atomic and subatomic spatial resolution as well as force spectroscopy with sub-piconewton sensitivity. FM-AFM is precise; because of all physical observables, time and frequency can be measured by far with the greatest accuracy. By design, FM-AFM clearly separates conservative and dissipative interactions where conservative forces induce a frequency shift and dissipative interactions alter the power needed to maintain a constant oscillation amplitude of the cantilever. As it operates in a noncontact mode, it enables simultaneous AFM and STM measurements. The frequency stability of quartz and the small oscillation amplitudes that are possible with stiff quartz sensors optimize the signal to noise ratio. Here, we discuss the operating principles, the assembly of qPlus sensors, amplifiers, limiting factors, and applications. Applications encompass unprecedented subatomic spatial resolution, the measurement of forces that act in atomic manipulation, imaging and spectroscopy of spin-dependent forces, and atomic resolution of organic molecules, graphite, graphene, and oxides.