Mechanical drift between an atomic force microscope (AFM) tip and sample is a longstanding problem that limits tip-sample stability, registration, and the signal-to-noise ratio during imaging. We demonstrate a robust solution to drift that enables novel precision measurements, especially of biological macromolecules in physiologically relevant conditions. Our strategy – inspired by precision optical trapping microscopy – is to actively stabilize both the tip and the sample using locally generated optical signals. In particular, we scatter a laser off the apex of commercial AFM tips and use the scattered light to locally measure and thereby actively control the tip’s three-dimensional position above a sample surface with atomic precision in ambient conditions. With this enhanced stability, we overcome the traditional need to scan rapidly while imaging and achieve a fivefold increase in the image signal-to-noise ratio. Finally, we demonstrate atomic-scale (∼100 pm) tip-sample stability and registration over tens of minutes with a series of AFM images. The stabilization technique requires low laser power (<1 mW), imparts a minimal perturbation upon the cantilever, and is independent of the tip-sample interaction. This work extends atomic-scale tip-sample control, previously restricted to cryogenic temperatures and ultrahigh vacuum, to a wide range of perturbative operating environments.
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This work was supported by a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface (GMK) and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences (TTP), a National Research Council Research Associateship Award (GMK), an NIH Molecular Biophysics Training Scholarship (ABC, T32 GM-065103), a Butcher Grant, the NSF (grant #: 0923544) and NIST. Mention of commercial products is for information only; it does not imply NIST’s recommendation or endorsement, nor does it imply that the products mentioned are necessarily the best available for the purpose. TTP is a staff member of NIST’s Quantum Physics Division.
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