Scanning Probe Microscopes


The scanning probe microscope gives the academic and research world a cutting edge when it comes to imaging capabilities. It is a microscope specialized to provide a high-image magnification for studying and observing three-dimensional objects and subjects.

This enhancement on the scanning probe microscope enhanced images, specimen properties, and even the specimen’s reaction and non-reaction when it is subjected to touch.

Scanning Probe Microscope close up


To give you a brief story about how it all began, here is the story. Dr. Gerd K. Binning and Dr. Heinrich Rohrer once conducted the very first successful scanning tunneling microscope observation at the atomic level, inside an IBM research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland. 

Both of the doctors, Rohrer and Binning, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics back in 1986 for their cunning work in bringing the scanning probe microscope technology from inside the box to the spotlight.

Today, the scanning probe technology at the microscopic level is usually found in both the academic world and industrial laboratories, including physics, chemistry, and biology. Now, they are the standard tools being used for the analysis of research and development.


Being able to observe a specimen in three dimensions, observing it in real-time, and being able to manipulate specimens with the help of electrical current while being able to be interacted upon using the tip of the probe provides great potential and a big help for research purposes. 

Being able to view a specimen in a wide array of environments is a great reason why the scanning probe microscope is famous and widely used. Using this powerful invention, researchers can now be able to view specimens at a nanometer level. The scanning probe microscope uses a probe that is delicate, and able to scan specimens and their surface instead of using light waves or electrons.

How does it work?

The scanning probe microscope works in a way like a vinyl record player- it uses a sharp, electrically charged probe to trace the surface of a subject or a specimen.

However, unlike the record needle, the scanning probe microscope’s probe does not necessarily touch the specimen’s surface. Instead, it only traces the specimen nanometers away from the surface. Moreover, the researchers can use the tip of the electrically-charged probe to interact with the specimen to see how it would respond or react. With the electric currents running through the tip of the probe, researchers may see how a specimen attracts or detracts. Because the scanning probe microscope can operate in a wide range of environments, it can easily manipulate and observe even the non-conductive specimens.

The development of the scanning probe microscope throughout the years has opened the possibility for specialized microscopes to be created. These include:

Scanning Tunneling Microscope

This specialized microscope, called the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, operates using a piezo-electrically charged wire. It is used by letting it get close to the surface of the specimen, to produce an accurate, well-enhanced image of the specimen.

The electrically-charged wires let energy focus across the small space between the wires and the surface, and onto the specimen, where the current will meet the specimen’s surface and eventually decay. Once it decays, it will be measured and information will be collected. From these, a high-resolution image of the specimen’s surface will be produced.

Scanning Tunneling microscopy allows researchers to collect and study images at an atomic level, and they can also alter the environment to yield different results. Some environments used are gaseous environment, liquid, vacuum, and many more.

Atomic Force Microscope

Atomic Force Microscope

This type of microscope uses a cantilever beam that has a sharp probe, which allows it to scan the surface of the specimen. The resolution it yields allows you to have one that you can measure smaller than nanometers. It is like “feeling” the surface of the specimen to gather and yield results.

This microscope is very flexible, allowing some additional specialized instruments to be used together with this.


The scanning probe microscope is made specifically to provide the researchers with a wide variety of specimen observation environments, reducing the time it usually needs as you can use the same microscope and specimen all over again.

As improvements are continuously made throughout the years, these improvements and specialized probes installed to scanning probe instruments provide a cutting edge for researchers, allowing them to yield faster, more efficient, and better results with studying and revealing the specimen’s images.


If there are some advantages, there are also some setbacks when it comes to scanning probe technology. One of these is that the scanning probe microscopes are only producing images in black and white or grayscale, opening the gates for mistakes, as it can easily exaggerate or underestimate the actual size, shape, and color of the specimen. 

However, computers are made to make up for the scanning probe microscope’s shortcomings. It helps the researchers to correct some minor failures of the microscope. It helps the researchers to yield real-time colors, actual size, and shape, and can even detect real-time interactions and results within the cellular structures, allowing the researchers to observe some harmonic responses and magnetic energy activities.

Technology Evolution

As time goes by, researchers from all around the globe may add some features to improve the scanning probe microscope’s performance. Doing this will help the microscope to yield better results, which will result in better observations, improved data interpretation and analysis, and processing equipment.

The Scanning Probe Microscope has helped the world in its ways and has contributed great things to the research industry. It is a great partner in innovating and achieving new heights when it comes to studies.

As more specialized instruments like these are continue to be developed, Nanotechnology will be more interesting.