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Depth charge: Using atomic force microscopy to study subsurface structures
Date:6/24/2010

to use the stronger, longer-range electrostatic force (technically an EFM), measuring the interaction between the probe tip and a charged plate beneath the composite sample. What makes it work, says Zhao, is that the nanotubes are electrical conductors with high dielectric constant (a measure of how the material affects an electric field), but the polymer is a low dielectric constant material. Such huge dielectric constant differences between nanotubes and the polymer is the key to the success of this technique, and with properly chosen voltages the nanotubes show up as finely detailed fibers dispersed below the composite's surface.

The goal, according to Zhao, is to control the process well enough to allow quantitative measurements. At present the group can discriminate different concentrations of carbon nanotubes in the polymer, determine conductive networks of the nanotubes and map electric potential distribution of the nanotubes below the surface. But the measurement is quite tricky, many factors, including probe shape and even humidity affect the electrostatic force.

The team used a specially designed probe tip and a patented, NIST-designed AFM humidity chamber.** An interesting, not yet fully understood effect, says Zhao, is that increasing the voltage between the probe and the sample at some point causes the image contrast to invert, dark regions becoming light and vice versa. The team is studying the mechanism of such contrast inversion.

"We are still optimizing this EFM technique for subsurface imaging," says Zhao. "If the depth of nanostructures located from the film surface can be determined quantitatively, this technique will be a powerful tool for nondestructive subsurface imaging of high dielectric nanostructures in a low dielectric matrix, with a broad range of applications in nanotechnology."


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Contact: Michael Baum
michael.baum@nist.gov
301-975-2763
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Source:Eurekalert

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