Photo induced Force Microscopy (PiFM): Nanoscale Topography and Vibrational Spectroscopy

Lead Research Organisation: CARDIFF UNIVERSITY
Department Name: Chemistry


Virtually every aspect of our everyday lives, from friction to adhesion, from LED lighting to display screens, and from corrosion to drug delivery through cell walls, depends upon the interface between the outer layer of a solid and the environment. We know the "outer layer" that governs the interactions between a solid and a gas, liquid, or solid, is usually less than a couple of nanometers (nm) thick and often as little as the very outermost layer of atoms or molecules. This means that there is simply very little surface material there to see, in a 1 cm cube of solid for example, only 1 atom in 100 million is at the surface. That makes studying these interfaces very difficult.

Surface science has developed many different techniques capable of examining the outer layer of atoms, but there remain considerable gaps in our knowledge. In particular, we cannot see how the molecular composition changes at very small scales (i.e. < 1000th of a mm) although we do know that such local differences are critical to the behaviour of most interfaces. We can obtain an idea of the molecular constituents of the surface as an average over areas of a few millimeters from bouncing light off the surface, but this approach cannot be used at the smallest scales needed.
In the last 30 years, scanning probe microscopy such as atomic force microscopy (AFM) have revolutionized our understanding of the topography of interfaces; it is now routinely possible to resolve the shape of features as small as a few nm and to study how such local structures affect the behaviour of the interface. The shape is only part of the story however, the local chemical composition and electron interactions are crucial too. With this proposal, we will establish a facility for UK researchers that is capable of determining the topography, local molecular composition and local electronic interactions simultaneously with <10 nm lateral resolution. The technique is called Photo-induced Force Microscopy (PiFM) and can provide a full infrared (IR) spectrum at every point on an AFM map. Infrared spectroscopy is a standard tool used by chemists to identify molecular species (a version of IR was used to identify the presence of methane on Mars for example, and more controversially the possible presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus).
The combination of infrared spectroscopy with atomic force microscopy at such high resolution will provide a new and very important insight into areas of science as diverse as antibacterial coatings on surfaces, quantum nanocrystals for lighting and display, materials for medical implants, catalysts for water purification and the cause of defects or failure in the coatings applied to electrical steels. Understanding these processes will help researchers develop more resilient and sustainable materials with better performance.


10 25 50
Description Development of a nanoscale, near-infrared spectroscopy imaging tool for in situ, rapid and label-free analysis of single extracellular vesicles
Amount £224,665 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/X004449/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2023 
End 04/2024
Description Identification, quantification and location of chemical functionality upon electrochemically exfoliated graphene nanoplatelets
Amount £145,552 (GBP)
Funding ID 10039334 
Organisation Innovate UK 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2023 
End 11/2023
Description Janus particles for interfacial catalysis in oil foams: Catalysis Hub Project
Amount £118,530 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2022 
End 08/2023
Description Plastic fish: assessing the scale, chemical properties and biological effects of petrochemical plastics and bioplastics on aquaculture fish
Amount £691,091 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/X007960/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2023 
End 03/2026
Description Novel surface analysis techniques 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar/workshop discussing the PiFM and other techniques at the centre
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Presentation at UKSAF January meeting 2023 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 30 minute presentation to the UK Surface analysis forum
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023