High-Speed AFM

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Physics


The world's fastest high-speed atomic force microscope (HSAFM) has been constructed and developed within the University of Bristol. With a demonstrable 1,000 fold speed increase, compared to standard AFM techniques, we are capable of mapping the size, shape and material stiffness of billions of nanoparticles (NPs) within a very short length of time.

In this application we seek to procure two assets which will enhance our instruments capability, cementing its position as a world-leading tool for NP sizing and counting. A Laser Doppler Vibrometer (LDV) would replace our current detection system which, through extensive testing, we have proven will significantly improves the quality of data collected; as it facilitates the collection of data at 20 megapixels per second. This allows for the imaging of large sample areas (cm2) with an exceptional resolution (<1 pm). With this upgraded our HSAFM would be capable of generating an impressive 72 gigapixels per hour (and therefore 1 terabyte per day) of data, for analysis.

This significant increase in data throughput represents a challenging need for more powerful data analysis techniques. The second asset we therefore request is professionally developed software (based on our prototype) and a high-performance workstation so data collected can be automatically analysed, condensed and presented live to the user in an efficient and elegant manner.

The HSAFM will also be used generally in Earth Sciences for ultra-high resolution imaging and the mapping of material properties with nanometre resolution across macro sized areas, creating terapixel sized datasets in a short period of time. This is a task only the HSAFM can perform and will be used to look at microfossils and seismology studies, linking with many NERC research projects.

Planned Impact

The inclusion of material stiffness data is an exciting and novel advantage of the proposed asset which will provide UK researchers with a new tool for NP characterisation and more broadly, nanoscale surface analysis. It will allow for the identification of man-made NPs against a background of natural material: which DEFRA considers a critical problem facing the environmental risk assessment and impact of NPs. As such, these assets will enable the collection of environmentally-relevant big data that could be used to inform and drive NERC and DEFRA policy and guidelines.

We will involve FENAC in our software design activity to ensure our system is compatible with their existing evaluation processes and to establish a strategy of collaboration to fully utilise and continue to refine the device. Similarly, on the international stage, we will include the Centre for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology at the University of California to ensure compatibility with their engineered nanomaterial libraries and thus generate wider dissemination of HSAFM-based datasets.


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Description We have established an analytical facility for High-Speed Atomic Force Microscopy at the University of Bristol. This has been directly facilitated by the NERC funding and has resulted in new and exciting research with numerous collaborators covering the NERC, EPSRC and even BBSRC research remit.
Exploitation Route This was an equipment development project and has led to the development of a very significant new analytical tool for materials research.

The University has authorised, and we have set up a Start-Up company to manufacture HSAFM instruments for the materials research and life science research communities. We are currently in talks with Thermo to establish a licencing deal to manufacture and distribute our HSAFM instruments worldwide!

In addition, the HSAFM has led to the initiation of multiple new research projects, studentship funding and is starting to produce a number of high impact research papers.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Electronics,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description The project has led to the establishment of a Start-Up company, called Bristol Nano-dynamics (BND), which aims to commercialise the software and hardware associated with the NERC funded HSAFM we've developed. Since this time the University of Bristol in collaboration with BND have been funded to put HSAFM instruments into Virginia Commonwealth University and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. In both cases the HSAFM will be used as part of an advanced genomics facility. Most recently the start-up company has undertaken talks with Thermo Fisher to fully commercialise and sell the HSAFM to the international materials analysis and genomics research markets.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Economic

Description Multimodal characterisation of engineered nanomaterials in the environment.
Amount £453,556 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/N006518/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2015 
End 11/2019
Description Royal Academy of Engineering research Fellowship
Amount £571,000 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Academy of Engineering 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 10/2018
Title High Speed AFM 
Description The high speed atomic force microscope is the world's fasted atomic force microscope capable of watching dynamic reactions in-situ in real-time and with nano-resolution. Equally it can scan large areas (1mm2) with a nanometre resolution in hours rather than many months or years (which is what is takes for other AFM systems). Its greatest use will be in materials science research and genomics. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We have established a start-up company to commercialise this technology (software and hardware) and are currently in talks with Thermo-Fisher to licence worldwide manufacture, marketing and distribution of the HSAFM technology. 
Title High Speed AFM 
Description Utilisation of the NERC funded High Speed Atomic Force Microscopy (HSAFM) capability at Bristol to provide assay of nanoparticle samples. HSAFM has proven very suitable for analysis of size and shape of NPs extracted from environmental samples onto sample substrates (glass or silicon wafers). 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact No notable impact as yet but the HSAFM technique is showing increasing capability to accelerate research in both materials science and genomics research. 
Description Collaboration with CNEA, Argentina 
Organisation National Atomic Energy Commission
PI Contribution Part funded by the IAEA and World Bank, we have established a collaboration programme based around the development and deployment of nano materials for the remediation of uranium contaminated groundwaters and sediments. The activity has included (i) hosting a team of researchers from Argentina for a 2 week research visit to Bristol (involving lectures, lab training in nanoparticle synthesis and joint experiments) and (ii) Going to Argentina (funded by IAEA) to visit the CNEA headquarters in Buenos Ares and visit the Los Gigantes uranium mining site near Cordoba in the Andes (1800m).
Collaborator Contribution As above, the activity has included (i) hosting a team of researchers from Argentina for a 2 week research visit to Bristol (involving lectures, lab training in nanoparticle synthesis and joint experiments) and (ii) Going to Argentina (funded by IAEA) to visit the CNEA headquarters in Buenos Ares and visit the Los Gigantes uranium mining site near Cordoba in the Andes (1800m). The CNEA team arranged all the funding and all site visits during our trip to Argentina.
Impact The collaboration has so far resulted in the following: (1) a technical assessment report for the IAEA (sorry this is restricted) on the Los Gigantes site in Argentina (2) a Chapter in a book (under editing at present) (3) invitation by the IAEA to join an international working group on nano materials for nuclear cleanup
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with Plymouth Marine Laboratory 
Organisation Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution As a result of developing the HSAFM instrument we have linked with PML to help them set up the new NERC genomics facility. The HSAFM will be a core novel capability of this facility and the collaboration will be strengthened by a joint studentship starting in September 2016.
Collaborator Contribution We helped them become aware of HSAFM for genomics research as a valuable new tool which is both faster and cheaper than the current leading standard (PCR) technology.
Impact The collaboration is multi-disciplinary and has also stared to expand into marine surveying technologies.
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with VCU (USA) 
Organisation Virginia Commonwealth University
Department Department of Physics
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We made VCU aware of high-speed AFM technology and set them up with a system so they can develop a new DNA gene analysis technology. Following multiple research visits the technology is coming along very well and is being developed as a tool for cancer detection with world leading high sensitivity.
Collaborator Contribution VCU has developed the DNA chemistry and sample prep methods, we have developed the hardware to image the samples.
Impact Papers have been published which have been submitted in the outcomes, further papers have been submitted and are being written.
Start Year 2012
Description Collaboration with the MRI Tsukuba, Japan 
Organisation Meteorological Research Institute
Country Japan 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have visited the MRI in October 2016 to establish a partnership in relation to metal-oxide nano-sized particles in air pollution. Working directly with Professor Yashuito Igarashi we are undertaking a transfer of samples and researchers to coordinate research on nanomaterial pollution cause by vehicles.
Collaborator Contribution The have responded with a visit to the UK and have provided us with engineering drawings and build details for the construction of a particle impactor - a device used to sample nano-pollution in the air. We have since purchased such a device for the NERC programme and are using it in central Bristol.
Impact We have yet to make a joint publication as the relationship is relatively juvenile
Start Year 2016
Title HSAFM development 
Description The technology has been developed in both hardware and software and is at a pre-commercial stage. 
IP Reference  
Protection Protection not required
Year Protection Granted
Licensed No
Impact We are currently in talks with Thermo-Fisher about establishing a 1-year technology evaluation contract with the HSAFM start-up company Bristol Nano Dynamics
Title 2015 NNL innovation award 
Description The 2015 National Nuclear Laboratory innovation award. 
Type Of Technology New/Improved Technique/Technology 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact The High-speed AFM is being used to observe corrosion for the first time in real time under in vivo conditions. 
Title HSAFM software 
Description Software for the operation and data processing (Big Data) arising from the HSAFM instrument developed in the project. The software was developed to rapidly perform particle counting, distribution, sizing and shaping (aspect ratio analysis). 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact This dramatically improved the use of HSAFM for environmental tracking of nanomaterials in water samples or nano.micro-scale precipitates or structures in material surfaces. 
Company Name Bristol Nano Dynamics 
Description Bristol Nano Dynamics is a company set-up to commercialise the HSAFM technology. It is software and hardware research and development company 
Year Established 2015 
Impact None as yet - its only been trading for about 8 months!
Description HSAFM outreach and awareness building 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We have been engaged in 4 outreach events to build awareness in the research community about the HSAFM and its capability for research,
For example, one of the highlight talks was given at the UKSAF summer 2015 conference to a room of >100 researchers from industry and academia. This has seen significant interest in the HSAFM since to the point we are overwhelmed by requests for research!
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015