AFM is a type of scanning probe microscopy (SPM), with demonstrated resolution on the order of fractions of a nanometer, more than 1000 times better than the optical diffraction limit. The information is gathered by « feeling » or « touching » the surface with a mechanical probe. Piezoelectric elements that facilitate tiny but accurate and precise movements on (electronic) command enable precise scanning.
The AFM has three major abilities : force measurement, imaging, and manipulation.
In force measurement, AFMs can be used to measure the forces between the probe and the sample as a function of their mutual separation. This can be applied to perform force spectroscopy, to measure the mechanical properties of the sample, such as the sample’s Young’s modulus, a measure of stiffness.
For imaging, the reaction of the probe to the forces that the sample imposes on it can be used to form an image of the three-dimensional shape (topography) of a sample surface at a high resolution. This is achieved by raster scanning the position of the sample with respect to the tip and recording the height of the probe that corresponds to a constant probe-sample interaction (see section topographic imaging in AFM for more details). The surface topography is commonly displayed as a pseudocolorplot.
In manipulation, the forces between tip and sample can also be used to change the properties of the sample in a controlled way. Examples of this include atomic manipulation, scanning probe lithography and local stimulation of cells.
Simultaneous with the acquisition of topographical images, other properties of the sample can be measured locally and displayed as an image, often with similarly high resolution. Examples of such properties are mechanical properties like stiffness or adhesion strength and electrical properties such as conductivity or surface potential. In fact, the majority of SPM techniques are extensions of AFM that use this modality.