Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

EC-STM: Probing the Nanoscale Electrochemical World

The realm of nanotechnology has revolutionized our understanding of matter and materials at the atomic and molecular levels. One of the key tools that has played a pivotal role in this exploration is the Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (EC-STM). This sophisticated technique has opened new frontiers in nanoscale research, allowing scientists and researchers to visualize and manipulate materials at an unprecedented level of precision. In this comprehensive guide by Academic Block, we will examine the intricacies of EC-STM, exploring its principles, applications, and the groundbreaking insights it has provided into the world of electrochemistry and nanoscience.

I. Fundamentals of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

1.1 The Birth of STM Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) emerged in the early 1980s as a groundbreaking imaging technique capable of visualizing surfaces at the atomic scale. Developed by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the STM relies on the phenomenon of quantum tunneling, where electrons “tunnel” through a vacuum barrier between a sharp metallic tip and a conducting sample surface. The current resulting from this tunneling process is highly sensitive to the tip-sample distance, making it possible to generate detailed topographic images of surfaces.

1.2 Quantum Tunneling in STM Quantum tunneling, a phenomenon governed by the principles of quantum mechanics, plays a crucial role in STM. As the tip approaches the sample surface, electrons have a finite probability of crossing the tunneling barrier, leading to a measurable tunneling current. The current is exponentially dependent on the tip-sample distance, allowing for precise control and imaging capabilities.

II. Evolution into Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

2.1 Introducing Electrochemistry While STM provided extraordinary insights into surface structures, researchers sought ways to extend its capabilities to study dynamic processes involving chemical reactions. This led to the development of Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy, where the STM setup is combined with electrochemical cells to investigate electrochemical reactions at the nanoscale.

2.2 Components of an EC-STM Setup An EC-STM setup typically consists of an electrochemical cell containing an electrolyte solution, a working electrode (sample), a counter electrode, and a reference electrode. The STM tip serves as the scanning probe, enabling simultaneous imaging and manipulation of the sample surface during electrochemical processes.

III. Principles of Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

3.1 Dynamic Imaging Unlike traditional STM, EC-STM allows researchers to observe dynamic processes occurring on the surface of the electrode during electrochemical reactions. This capability is invaluable for studying the evolution of surface structures, adsorption/desorption processes, and the formation of reaction intermediates.

3.2 Potential-Dependent Imaging In EC-STM, the applied potential to the working electrode plays a critical role in controlling the electrochemical reactions on the surface. By varying the potential, researchers can induce changes in the surface structure, enabling the study of electrodeposition, corrosion, and other electrochemical phenomena.

IV. Applications of EC-STM in Nanoscience

4.1 Corrosion Studies EC-STM has proven to be a powerful tool for investigating corrosion processes at the nanoscale. By imaging the electrode surface under various electrochemical conditions, researchers can gain insights into the mechanisms of corrosion, identify corrosion products, and develop strategies for corrosion prevention.

4.2 Electrocatalysis The study of electrocatalytic processes is crucial for the development of efficient energy conversion devices, such as fuel cells and batteries. EC-STM enables researchers to visualize and understand the behavior of catalysts at the atomic level, contributing to the design of more effective and stable electrocatalysts.

4.3 Nanoscale Redox Processes Understanding redox processes at the nanoscale is essential for designing advanced materials for energy storage and conversion. EC-STM allows for the in-situ monitoring of redox reactions, shedding light on the behavior of materials during charge/discharge cycles in batteries and capacitors.

V. Mathematical equations behind the Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

The mathematical equations behind Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (EC-STM) involve principles from both Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) and electrochemistry. Here, I’ll provide a simplified overview of the relevant equations:

Tunneling Current in STM:

The tunneling current (I) in STM is described by the following equation:

I = I0 exp [ ⁡{−2d sqrt(2mϕ) } / ℏ) ] ;


  • I0 is a constant related to the electronic properties of the material.

  • d is the distance between the STM tip and the sample surface.

  • m is the electron mass.

  • ϕ is the work function of the material.

  • is the reduced Planck’s constant.

Nernst Equation in Electrochemistry:

The Nernst equation relates the electrochemical potential of a half-cell to the concentration of reactants and products:

E = Eo − (RT / nF) ln⁡( [C]c [D]d / [A]a [B]b) ;


  • E is the cell potential.

  • Eo is the standard cell potential.

  • R is the gas constant.

  • T is the temperature.

  • n is the number of moles of electrons exchanged in the electrochemical reaction.

  • F is Faraday’s constant.

  • [A],[B],[C],[D] are the molar concentrations of the species involved in the electrochemical reaction.

Combined Equation for EC-STM:

The tunneling current in EC-STM is influenced by the electrochemical potential and the potential difference between the STM tip and the sample. The equation can be expressed as:

I = I0 exp⁡ [ {− 2d sqrt(2m(ϕ+eU)) } / ℏ ] ;


  • U is the applied potential difference between the STM tip and the sample surface.

  • e is the elementary charge.

This equation illustrates how the tunneling current in EC-STM is influenced not only by the distance between the tip and the sample but also by the electrochemical potential applied to the sample.

It’s important to note that the actual interpretation and manipulation of data obtained through EC-STM involve complex data analysis techniques and may require numerical simulations to extract meaningful information about the surface morphology and electrochemical processes. The mathematical models used can vary based on specific experimental setups and conditions.

VI. Challenges and Future Perspectives

6.1 Tip-Sample Interaction The delicate interplay between the STM tip and the sample surface poses challenges in achieving stable and reproducible results. Researchers continue to explore new materials for tips and innovative tip-sample interaction control strategies to enhance the reliability of EC-STM measurements.

6.2 Environmental Conditions EC-STM experiments are highly sensitive to environmental conditions, including temperature, pressure, and the composition of the electrolyte solution. Advancements in instrumentation and experimental techniques are essential for expanding the applicability of EC-STM under a broader range of conditions.

6.3 Integration with Other Techniques To gain a more comprehensive understanding of electrochemical processes, researchers are increasingly integrating EC-STM with other techniques such as in-situ spectroscopy and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy. This multidisciplinary approach provides a more holistic view of nanoscale phenomena.

Final Words

In this article by Academic Block we have seen that, the Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy has emerged as a transformative tool, enabling researchers to explore the nanoscale world of electrochemistry with unprecedented precision. From unraveling the mysteries of corrosion to designing efficient electrocatalysts, EC-STM continues to drive advancements in nanoscience and materials research. As technology progresses, the integration of EC-STM with complementary techniques and the resolution of current challenges will undoubtedly pave the way for new discoveries and applications in the fascinating realm of nanotechnology. Please provide your comments below, it will help us in improving this article. Thanks for reading!

Key Discoveries where Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy is used

  1. Understanding Electrocatalysis: EC-STM has been pivotal in unraveling the intricate details of electrocatalytic reactions. Researchers have used EC-STM to visualize and study the behavior of catalysts at the atomic scale, leading to insights into the mechanisms of electrocatalysis. This knowledge is essential for the design and optimization of catalysts for fuel cells and other energy conversion devices.

  2. Observation of Surface Restructuring during Electrochemical Reactions: EC-STM allows scientists to observe dynamic surface processes during electrochemical reactions. For instance, in the field of battery research, EC-STM has been employed to study the restructuring of electrode surfaces during charge and discharge cycles. Understanding these processes is crucial for improving the performance and lifespan of energy storage devices.

  3. Investigations into Corrosion Processes: EC-STM has provided valuable insights into the mechanisms of corrosion at the nanoscale. Researchers have used this technique to visualize the initiation and progression of corrosion, identify corrosion products, and understand the factors influencing the corrosion resistance of materials. Such knowledge is essential for developing corrosion-resistant materials.

  4. Exploration of Nanoscale Redox Processes: The study of redox processes at the nanoscale is critical for the development of advanced materials for energy storage and conversion. EC-STM has been employed to monitor in real-time the redox reactions occurring on electrode surfaces. This information is fundamental for designing more efficient batteries, supercapacitors, and other electrochemical devices.

  5. Understanding Electrosynthesis and Electrodeposition: EC-STM has been used to investigate fundamental aspects of electrosynthesis and electrodeposition processes. Researchers can visualize the nucleation and growth of electrodeposited layers with nanoscale precision. This knowledge is essential for controlling and optimizing the synthesis of nanomaterials with specific properties.

  6. Visualization of Adsorption and Desorption Processes: Adsorption and desorption of molecules on electrode surfaces are crucial in various electrochemical processes, including fuel cells and sensors. EC-STM has allowed scientists to directly observe and study these processes at the atomic level, providing insights into the interactions between adsorbates and electrode surfaces.

  7. Insights into Surface Defects and Defect-Induced Reactivity: EC-STM has been employed to study the role of surface defects in electrochemical reactions. By imaging and analyzing defect sites on electrode surfaces, researchers gain a better understanding of how defects influence the reactivity and catalytic activity of materials, contributing to the design of more effective catalysts.

  8. Advancements in Single-Molecule Studies: EC-STM has been used to push the boundaries of single-molecule studies in electrochemistry. By manipulating individual molecules on surfaces and studying their behavior in real-time, researchers gain unprecedented insights into the electronic and chemical properties of single molecules, opening up new possibilities for molecular electronics and sensing applications.

Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Hardware and software required for Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy


  1. Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM):

    • STM Head: The core of the STM system, consisting of a sharp metallic tip mounted on a piezoelectric scanner.
    • Piezoelectric Scanner: Responsible for precise movement of the STM tip in the x, y, and z directions.
  2. Electrochemical Cell:

    • Working Electrode: The sample or material of interest where electrochemical reactions occur.
    • Counter Electrode: Provides a path for the current to flow in the electrochemical cell.
    • Reference Electrode: Maintains a stable and known electrochemical potential for reference.
    • Electrolyte Solution: A solution containing ions that facilitates electrochemical reactions.
  3. Electrochemical Control System:

    • Potentiostat/Galvanostat: Controls the voltage or current applied to the working electrode.
    • Reference Electrode Amplifier: Amplifies and conditions the signal from the reference electrode.
    • Counter Electrode Amplifier: Amplifies and conditions the signal from the counter electrode.
  4. Temperature Control System:

    • Temperature Controller: Maintains a stable temperature within the electrochemical cell to control reaction rates.

  5. Electronic Components:

    • Amplifiers: Amplify the tunneling current signal from the STM.
    • Feedback Control System: Adjusts the tip-sample distance to maintain a constant tunneling current.
  6. Data Acquisition System:

    • Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC): Converts analog signals (e.g., tunneling current) to digital data.
    • Data Processing Unit: Manages and processes the data collected during experiments.
  7. Vacuum System:

    • Vacuum Pump: Creates and maintains a vacuum in the STM system to minimize interference from air molecules.


  1. STM Control Software:

    • Control Interface: Enables the user to control the STM system, set scanning parameters, and manipulate the tip position.
    • Image Processing Tools: Processes raw data into visual images of the sample surface.
  2. Electrochemical Control Software:

    • Potentiostat Control Interface: Allows the user to set electrochemical parameters, such as applied potential and current range.
    • Data Logging and Analysis Tools: Collects and analyzes electrochemical data during experiments.
  3. Integration Software:

    • Software Interface: Provides a unified platform for controlling both the STM and electrochemical components simultaneously.
    • Data Synchronization Tools: Ensures synchronization of data acquisition between STM and electrochemical systems.
  4. Simulation and Modeling Software:

    • Numerical Simulation Tools: Used for simulating electrochemical reactions and processes on the nanoscale.

  5. Data Visualization and Analysis Software:

    • Graphing Tools: Facilitates the visualization of data obtained from EC-STM experiments.
    • Image Analysis Software: Analyzes and extracts quantitative information from STM images.

Facts on Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Introduction and Development: Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (EC-STM) is an advanced technique that combines principles from Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) with electrochemistry. The integration of STM and electrochemistry enables the in-situ study of electrochemical processes at the nanoscale.

Operational Principle: In EC-STM, a sharp metallic tip is brought into close proximity to a sample surface immersed in an electrolyte solution. The tunneling current between the tip and the sample is highly sensitive to the distance between them, allowing for precise imaging of surface features. Electrochemical reactions can be induced and monitored in real-time, providing insights into dynamic processes.

Key Components of EC-STM: EC-STM setups typically include a working electrode (sample), a counter electrode, a reference electrode, an electrolyte solution, and the STM tip. The working electrode serves as the substrate for electrochemical reactions, and the STM tip allows for high-resolution imaging.

Applications in Nanoscience: EC-STM has been instrumental in studying corrosion processes at the nanoscale, unraveling the mechanisms and identifying corrosion products. Electrocatalysis studies benefit from EC-STM, enabling researchers to visualize and understand catalytic processes for applications in fuel cells and batteries.

Potential-Dependent Imaging: The applied potential to the working electrode influences the electrochemical reactions on the surface, allowing for potential-dependent imaging. Researchers can induce changes in surface structures by varying the applied potential, facilitating the study of electrodeposition and other electrochemical phenomena.

Dynamic Imaging Capability: Unlike traditional STM, EC-STM allows for the observation of dynamic processes during electrochemical reactions. Researchers can monitor changes in surface structures, adsorption/desorption processes, and the formation of reaction intermediates in real-time.

Challenges in EC-STM: Achieving stable and reproducible results in EC-STM experiments can be challenging due to the delicate interaction between the STM tip and the sample. Environmental conditions, such as temperature, pressure, and electrolyte composition, can influence experimental outcomes.

Interdisciplinary Nature: EC-STM is an interdisciplinary technique that combines expertise in nanoscience, electrochemistry, and surface science. Integration with other techniques, such as spectroscopy and impedance measurements, provides a more comprehensive understanding of electrochemical processes.

Advancements in Instrumentation: Ongoing advancements in EC-STM instrumentation include the development of more stable and reliable tips, improved control systems, and enhanced data acquisition and analysis tools. Integration with other advanced microscopy techniques continues to expand the capabilities of EC-STM.

Contributions to Materials Science: EC-STM has contributed to the design and understanding of materials for energy storage and conversion, with applications in batteries, capacitors, and other electrochemical devices. Insights gained from EC-STM studies aid in the development of materials with improved electrochemical performance.

Key figures of Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

STM was developed by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in 1981, and they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for this groundbreaking work. STM revolutionized the field by allowing scientists to visualize and manipulate individual atoms on a surface. The principles of STM involve using a sharp metallic tip to scan the surface of a conducting sample while measuring the tunneling current that occurs due to quantum tunneling of electrons between the tip and the sample.

The integration of electrochemistry with STM to create EC-STM involved adapting STM to study electrochemical processes at the nanoscale. Researchers and scientists from various institutions contributed to the development of EC-STM, applying their expertise in both STM and electrochemistry.

Academic References on Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

  1. Bard, A. J., & Faulkner, L. R. (2000). Electrochemical Methods: Fundamentals and Applications (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

  2. Hansen, H. A., & Koch, J. (Eds.). (2009). Scanning Electrochemical Microscopy (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

  3. He, J., & Crooks, R. M. (1994). Scanning tunneling microscopy studies of electrode surfaces. In Physical Chemistry of Interfaces and Nanomaterials (pp. 243-284). New York, NY: Marcel Dekker.

  4. Hübner, J., & Riemann, A. (Eds.). (2013). Electrochemical Nanotechnology: In-situ Local Probe Techniques at Electrochemical Interfaces. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

  5. Koper, M. T. M. (2011). Theory of scanning tunneling microscopy at liquid-solid interfaces. In Annual Review of Physical Chemistry, 62, 263-281.

  6. Kuzume, A., & Oyobiki, T. (2015). Recent developments in scanning electrochemical microscopy for probing reactivity at interfaces. In Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry, 8, 401-420.

  7. Mann, J. R., & Evans, D. (2004). Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy: A Review. In Journal of Solid State Electrochemistry, 8(6), 425-438.

  8. Morita, S. (2003). Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy: A Review. In Electrochimica Acta, 48(18-19), 2681-2688.

  9. Osaka, T. (2007). Electrochemical scanning tunneling microscopy: In situ observations at the nanoscale. In Electrochimica Acta, 52(26), 7619-7633.

  10. Riemann, A., & Wandelt, K. (1993). Electrochemical scanning tunneling microscopy: an in situ local probe technique. In Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology B, 11(2), 495-501.

  11. Soriaga, M. P. (2001). The use of scanning tunneling microscopy in electrochemistry. In Electrochimica Acta, 47(22-23), 3571-3594.

  12. Vanysek, P. (Ed.). (2011). Electrochemical Scanning Tunneling Microscopy. In Electrochemical Dictionary. New York, NY: Springer.

  13. Vidal-Iglesias, F. J., & Varela, A. S. (2011). In-situ atomic force microscopy and scanning tunneling microscopy of electrocatalytic materials. In In-Situ Spectroscopy in Heterogeneous Catalysis (pp. 191-224). Berlin, Germany: Springer.

  14. Wipf, D. O., Hübner, J., & Wandelt, K. (1996). Towards a quantitative interpretation of electrochemical scanning tunneling microscopy: a review. In Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, 410(1-2), 1-23.

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