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Smallest AFM in the World

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Pic of man Since its inception in the 1980s, the atomic force microscope (AFM) has become a workhorse for nanoscience and nanotechnology researchers. At the core of any AFM are piezoelectric scanners, an ultra-sharp stylus tip, and sensing system. Scanning the tip across the surface and recording the measurements from the sensor produces a 3D image of nanoscale features on the surface. The biggest advantage of AFM is that it is does not require ultra-high vacuum conditions to operate and it can be used to scan a wide variety of samples. Where there is demand, there is a fierce competition among manufacturers of AFMs. However, one University of Waterloo nanotechnology spinoff company is standing above the crowd. ICSPI (pronounced as eye-see-spy) at UWaterloo’s Velocity Garage is quietly taking over the world with the most portable AFM on the market!  

ICSPI was co-founded by Professor Raafat Mansour in Electrical & Computer Engineering and his graduate student, Neil Sarkar. ICSPI designs, manufactures and sells single-chip MEMS-based AFM for educational, research and industrial applications, including failure analysis and quality control. Their flagship product, the nGauge AFM, has reset the expectations for AFM and nanoscale metrology: all of the scanners and sensors have been integrated onto a single 1 mm x 1 mm CMOS chip, miniaturizing the size, driving down costs, and dramatically simplifying the operation of AFM. The company has customers in over 15 countries - at world-leading universities, government research institutes, and companies of all sizes from start-ups to multinationals.  afm microscope

Some of ICSPI’s customers are now collaborators bringing applications for nGauge to new levels; one such area is related to product inspection and failure analysis in the semiconductor industry. This is one of the first commercial uses of AFM outside academic research labs. Recognizing the huge economic value of rapid inspection in the semiconductor industry, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin integrated multiple AFM chips from ICSPI into powerful in-line inspection systems. This allows inspection right after the processing step, without having to take the part “off-line”, offering unprecedented precision in quality control for manufacturers.  

Another amazing story comes from an ICSPI customer in Denmark, a company in the metal analysis (metallography) industry. During the COVID-19 lockdown in March, one of the company’s R&D engineers was able to take an nGauge AFM unit home and was able to continue her product development work. There, it was set up on a living room table – which was immediately converted into a laboratory bench for nanoscale measurements!  

ICSPI continues to contribute back to the UWaterloo community. ICSPI’s Director of Operations, David Morris, participated in the University of Waterloo’s second year Nanotechnology Engineering design days in the Fall of 2019. The students were tasked with building a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM, a pre-AFM microscope for which the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1986). A core group of early employees at ICSPI are graduates from the Nanotechnology Engineering undergraduate program, so it was natural for ICSPI to be there sharing their expertise! 


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