Photoinduced Force Microscopy

Photoinduced Force Microscopy: Probing Nanoscale Forces with Light

In the realm of nanotechnology and materials science, understanding the intricate details of surfaces and interfaces at the nanoscale is crucial for the development of advanced materials and devices. Conventional microscopy techniques, such as atomic force microscopy (AFM) and scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), have been invaluable tools in this endeavor. However, as the demand for higher resolution and more sophisticated imaging capabilities grows, researchers are exploring innovative approaches that push the boundaries of existing technologies. In this article by Academic Block, we will explore one such cutting-edge technique that is Photoinduced Force Microscopy (PiFM), which combines the principles of AFM with the unique capabilities of infrared spectroscopy to provide unprecedented insights into nanoscale structures.

Overview of Photoinduced Force Microscopy

Photoinduced Force Microscopy is a powerful imaging technique that leverages the interaction between light and matter to probe the properties of nanoscale materials with exceptional spatial resolution. It is an emerging branch of nanoscale microscopy that has gained prominence due to its ability to provide chemical information at the nanoscale. The technique is particularly advantageous for studying complex biological systems, polymers, and other materials where traditional microscopy methods may fall short.

The fundamental principle underlying PiFM is the detection of photoinduced forces between the tip of an atomic force microscope and the sample surface. Unlike traditional AFM, PiFM uses a specially designed tip that can detect both the mechanical and optical properties of a sample simultaneously. This dual-mode capability allows researchers to gather comprehensive information about the nanoscale structure and composition of a material.

Key Components of Photoinduced Force Microscopy

  1. Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM): At the core of PiFM is the AFM, a versatile and widely used tool in nanoscience. AFM employs a sharp tip attached to a flexible cantilever to scan the surface of a sample in a raster pattern. As the tip interacts with the surface, the deflection of the cantilever is measured, providing topographical information with high spatial resolution.

  2. Infrared Spectroscopy: The unique feature of PiFM lies in its integration with infrared spectroscopy. Infrared spectroscopy is a well-established technique for analyzing the chemical composition of materials by measuring the absorption or emission of infrared light. In PiFM, the AFM tip is equipped with a resonant antenna that enhances the interaction between the tip and the infrared light, enabling the detection of photoinduced forces.

  3. Laser Source: A laser source is used to provide the infrared illumination needed for spectroscopy. The wavelength of the laser is carefully chosen to match the absorption bands of the material under investigation. This coherent light source plays a crucial role in generating the photoinduced forces that are detected by the AFM tip.

  4. Detector: The detector in PiFM captures the deflection of the AFM cantilever caused by the photoinduced forces. This information is then processed to generate high-resolution images that reveal both the topography and chemical composition of the sample.

Working Principles of Photoinduced Force Microscopy

The operation of PiFM involves a series of intricate steps that enable the simultaneous acquisition of topographical and chemical information. The key working principles include:

  1. Infrared Absorption: When the sample is illuminated with infrared light, specific chemical bonds absorb energy at characteristic frequencies. This absorption leads to the excitation of vibrational modes within the material. The AFM tip, equipped with a resonant antenna, interacts with these vibrational modes, resulting in the generation of photoinduced forces.

  2. Photoinduced Forces: The interaction between the AFM tip and the sample induces forces that are detected by measuring the deflection of the cantilever. These forces provide information about the chemical composition and vibrational characteristics of the material at the nanoscale.

  3. Topographical Imaging: While the AFM tip is probing the chemical properties of the sample, it also simultaneously captures the topographical features. The feedback mechanism maintains a constant force between the tip and the surface, ensuring accurate topographical mapping.

  4. Data Integration: The acquired data from both the topographical and chemical channels are integrated to generate composite images. These images offer a comprehensive view of the nanoscale features, including surface topography and the distribution of specific chemical functionalities.

Applications of Photoinduced Force Microscopy

  1. Materials Science: PiFM has proven to be instrumental in characterizing the composition and structure of a wide range of materials. This includes organic and inorganic materials, polymers, composites, and nanostructured materials. Researchers can gain insights into the distribution of chemical components and identify subtle variations in composition that may impact material properties.

  2. Biological Imaging: The ability of PiFM to provide chemical information at the nanoscale makes it particularly valuable for studying biological systems. Researchers can investigate the composition of biomolecules, study cell membranes, and explore the nanoscale organization of proteins. This has implications for understanding diseases at the molecular level and developing targeted therapies.

  3. Nanoelectronics: In the field of nanoelectronics, where precise control over materials and interfaces is crucial, PiFM offers a powerful tool for characterizing nanoscale electronic devices. It enables researchers to study the chemical composition of semiconductors, insulators, and other materials used in electronic components, facilitating the development of advanced devices with enhanced performance.

  4. Catalysis and Surface Chemistry: PiFM can be applied to investigate catalytic processes at the nanoscale. By examining the chemical changes occurring on the surface of catalysts during reactions, researchers can gain valuable insights into reaction mechanisms and optimize catalytic materials for improved performance.

Mathematical equations behind the Photoinduced Force Microscopy

The mathematical equations behind Photoinduced Force Microscopy (PiFM) involve the principles of atomic force microscopy (AFM) and the photoinduced forces generated during the interaction between the AFM tip and the sample. Below, I’ll outline some key equations relevant to PiFM:

  1. AFM Cantilever Deflection:

    The deflection (d) of the AFM cantilever is a crucial parameter in AFM. It is related to the force (F) applied to the cantilever and its spring constant (k) by Hooke’s Law:

    F = −k⋅d ;

    In PiFM, the cantilever deflection is measured as the tip interacts with the sample surface, and changes in deflection provide information about the surface topography.

  2. Van der Waals Force and Tip-Sample Interaction:

    The interaction between the AFM tip and the sample includes van der Waals forces, which can be described by the Lennard-Jones potential:

    VvdW(r) = (A / r12) − (B / r6) ;

    Here, r is the distance between the tip and the sample, and A and B are constants related to the specific interaction. This potential contributes to the forces that govern the tip-sample interaction.

  3. Photoinduced Force:

    The photoinduced force in PiFM arises from the interaction between the AFM tip and the sample induced by the absorption of infrared light. The mathematical description of these forces can be complex and depends on the specifics of the experimental setup. Generally, the photoinduced force can be related to the gradient of the material’s polarizability with respect to its coordinate:

    Fphoto = − α ;

    Here, α is the polarizability of the material, and represents the gradient operator.

  4. PiFM Signal:

    The PiFM signal is often related to the change in frequency (Δf) of the AFM cantilever due to the photoinduced forces. The relationship between the frequency shift and the photoinduced force can be expressed as:

    Δf = −keff⋅Fphoto ;

    where keff is the effective spring constant of the cantilever.

It’s important to note that the specifics of these equations may vary based on the experimental setup, the properties of the materials involved, and the details of the AFM and PiFM instrumentation. Researchers may use sophisticated modeling and numerical simulations to understand and interpret the experimental data obtained through PiFM.

Challenges and Future Perspectives

While Photoinduced Force Microscopy has demonstrated remarkable capabilities, it is not without its challenges and limitations. Some of the key challenges include:

  1. Sensitivity and Signal-to-Noise Ratio: Achieving high sensitivity is critical for detecting weak photoinduced forces. Researchers are continually working on improving the signal-to-noise ratio to enhance the accuracy and reliability of PiFM measurements, especially in challenging environments or with samples of low contrast.

  2. Tip Fabrication and Design: The design and fabrication of the AFM tip with a resonant antenna are crucial for the success of PiFM. Optimizing tip geometry, material, and resonant frequency is an ongoing area of research to enhance the efficiency of the technique.

  3. Instrumentation Complexity: The integration of infrared spectroscopy with AFM adds complexity to the instrumentation. Researchers are exploring ways to simplify the setup and make PiFM more accessible to a broader scientific community.

  4. Imaging Speed: The imaging speed of PiFM can be a limiting factor, especially when studying dynamic processes. Improving the speed of data acquisition is an active area of research to enable real-time imaging and analysis.

Challenges and Developments

Looking ahead, the future of Photoinduced Force Microscopy holds exciting prospects. Researchers are exploring new avenues to address existing challenges and extend the capabilities of the technique. Some potential future developments include:

  1. Multimodal Imaging: Integrating PiFM with other imaging modalities, such as fluorescence microscopy or Raman spectroscopy, could provide complementary information, enabling researchers to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of nanoscale samples.

  2. In Situ and Operando Studies: Advancements in instrumentation and sample environments may enable in situ and operando studies, allowing researchers to investigate dynamic processes and reactions at the nanoscale in real time.

  3. Quantitative Chemical Mapping: Improving the quantitative capabilities of PiFM for chemical mapping would enhance its utility in quantitative analysis, enabling researchers to accurately measure the concentration and distribution of chemical components in a sample.

  4. Application in Quantum Materials: The unique capabilities of PiFM make it a promising tool for studying quantum materials, where nanoscale features play a crucial role in determining electronic and magnetic properties. Applying PiFM to investigate quantum phenomena could open new avenues in the field of quantum materials research.

Final Words

Photoinduced Force Microscopy represents a groundbreaking advancement in the field of nanoscale imaging and spectroscopy. By combining the strengths of AFM and infrared spectroscopy, PiFM enables researchers to probe the chemical composition of materials with unprecedented spatial resolution. Its applications span across diverse fields, from materials science to biology and nanoelectronics.

In this article by Academic Block we have seen that, as the PiFM continues to evolve, addressing technical challenges and expanding its capabilities, it is poised to play a pivotal role in unraveling the mysteries of the nanoscale world. The insights gained from PiFM studies have the potential to drive innovations in materials design, advance our understanding of biological systems, and contribute to the development of next-generation technologies. The journey of Photoinduced Force Microscopy is one of constant exploration, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of nanoscale characterization. Please provide your comments below, it will help us in improving this article. Thanks for reading!

Hardware and software required for Photoinduced Force Microscopy


  1. Atomic Force Microscope (AFM): PiFM is built upon the foundation of AFM. The AFM hardware includes a precision mechanical system with a piezoelectric scanner for sample positioning, a cantilever with a sharp tip, and a detection system to measure the deflection of the cantilever.

  2. Infrared Laser Source: A laser source emitting in the infrared range is required to induce the photoinduced forces. The laser wavelength is typically chosen to match the absorption bands of the sample material.

  3. Resonant AFM Tip with Antenna: The AFM tip used in PiFM is specially designed with a resonant antenna. This design enhances the interaction between the tip and the infrared light, enabling the detection of photoinduced forces.

  4. Photoinduced Force Detection System: The AFM system is equipped with a detection system that measures the deflection of the cantilever due to photoinduced forces. This information is crucial for generating high-resolution images.

  5. High-Quality Optics: Optics are essential for efficiently coupling the infrared light to the AFM tip. High-quality optics ensure the precision and reliability of the PiFM measurements.

  6. Vibration Isolation System: To achieve high-resolution imaging, it is crucial to minimize external vibrations. A vibration isolation system helps stabilize the AFM setup, reducing noise in the measurements.

  7. Environmental Control System: Some PiFM experiments may require specific environmental conditions. An environmental control system, such as temperature and humidity control, may be necessary to maintain sample stability.


  1. AFM Control Software: The AFM control software is used to operate the atomic force microscope. It allows users to control the scanning parameters, set imaging modes, and acquire topographical data.

  2. Data Acquisition and Analysis Software: Specialized software is needed to acquire, process, and analyze the data obtained during PiFM experiments. This software may include tools for topographical analysis, force curve analysis, and the extraction of chemical information.

  3. Spectroscopy Software: For performing PiFM spectroscopy, software that controls the laser source, sets the spectroscopy parameters, and records the resulting spectra is necessary. This software facilitates the correlation of spectroscopic data with topographical information.

  4. Modeling and Simulation Software: Researchers often use modeling and simulation software to interpret experimental results, simulate the behavior of the AFM tip, and optimize experimental parameters.

  5. Instrument Control and Integration Software: In cases where PiFM is part of a multimodal imaging setup or combined with other techniques, software for instrument control and integration is needed to synchronize data acquisition from different imaging modalities.

Facts on Photoinduced Force Microscopy

Principle of Operation: PiFM operates based on the interaction between an AFM tip and a sample surface. It utilizes the photoinduced forces generated when the sample is illuminated with infrared light. These forces result from the interaction of the AFM tip with the vibrational modes induced by the absorbed infrared light.

Simultaneous Imaging and Spectroscopy: One of the unique features of PiFM is its ability to simultaneously capture both topographical and chemical information at the nanoscale. This dual-mode capability distinguishes PiFM from traditional AFM techniques.

Nanoscale Chemical Mapping: PiFM enables nanoscale chemical mapping by providing information about the distribution and composition of chemical functionalities on a sample surface. This is particularly valuable in fields such as materials science, biology, and nanoelectronics.

Enhanced Spatial Resolution: PiFM has demonstrated enhanced spatial resolution compared to traditional infrared spectroscopy techniques. It can achieve sub-10 nanometer lateral resolution, allowing researchers to explore nanoscale features with unprecedented detail.

Applications in Materials Science: PiFM has been applied to study a wide range of materials, including polymers, 2D materials, semiconductors, and biological samples. Its ability to provide chemical specificity aids in understanding material composition and behavior at the nanoscale.

Biological Imaging: In biological applications, PiFM has been used to study cell membranes, proteins, and other biomolecules. It offers the potential to investigate biological systems with high spatial resolution and chemical selectivity.

Tip-Enhanced Infrared Spectroscopy (TEIRS): PiFM is sometimes referred to as Tip-Enhanced Infrared Spectroscopy (TEIRS) due to the enhancement of the infrared signal at the nanoscale by the AFM tip. This enhancement allows for the detection of weak infrared signals from small sample volumes.

Real-Time Imaging: Researchers are working towards achieving real-time imaging capabilities with PiFM. This would enable the observation of dynamic processes at the nanoscale, providing insights into reactions and phase transitions as they occur.

Challenges and Future Developments: Challenges in PiFM include sensitivity issues, optimization of tip design, and the integration of the technique with other imaging modalities. Ongoing research aims to address these challenges and further expand the capabilities of PiFM.

Multimodal Imaging: PiFM can be integrated with other imaging modalities, such as fluorescence microscopy or Raman spectroscopy, to provide complementary information. This multimodal approach enhances the comprehensive characterization of samples.

Potential for Quantum Materials: PiFM shows promise in the study of quantum materials, where nanoscale features play a crucial role in determining electronic and magnetic properties. Its application in this field could lead to new insights into quantum phenomena.

List Key Discoveries where Photoinduced Force Microscopy is used

  1. Nanoscale Chemical Imaging: PiFM has been used to achieve high-resolution chemical imaging at the nanoscale. Researchers have explored the chemical composition of materials, including polymers, organic molecules, and nanomaterials, providing insights into spatial variations in molecular structures.

  2. Biological Systems: PiFM has been applied to study biological samples, including cells and biomolecules. The technique’s ability to provide chemical information at the nanoscale is particularly valuable for understanding the composition and organization of biological materials.

  3. Polymer Science: In the field of polymer science, PiFM has been utilized to investigate the chemical heterogeneity of polymer films and surfaces. This includes the mapping of polymer blends and the identification of specific functional groups within polymer matrices.

  4. 2D Materials: PiFM has been employed to study two-dimensional (2D) materials, such as graphene and other layered structures. Researchers have used PiFM to explore the electronic and chemical properties of these materials with high spatial resolution.

  5. Catalysis Studies: The application of PiFM in catalysis research has allowed scientists to study chemical reactions at the nanoscale. Researchers have investigated the changes in the surface chemistry of catalysts during reactions, providing insights into reaction mechanisms.

  6. Semiconductor Characterization: PiFM has found utility in the characterization of semiconductor materials and devices. By probing the local chemical composition and electronic properties, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of semiconductor structures.

  7. Quantum Materials: PiFM has been applied to study quantum materials, including those with unique electronic and magnetic properties. The technique’s ability to provide both topographical and chemical information is valuable for understanding the nanoscale features influencing material behavior.

  8. In Situ Studies: Researchers have started to explore in situ applications of PiFM, allowing for the real-time monitoring of dynamic processes at the nanoscale. This includes studies of phase transitions, chemical reactions, and other dynamic phenomena.

Academic References on Photoinduced Force Microscopy

  1. Nowak, D., Morrison, W., Wickramasinghe, H. K., Jahng, J., Potma, E., Wan, L., … & Park, S. (2016). Nanoscale chemical imaging by photoinduced force microscopy. Science advances, 2(3), e1501571.

  2. Jahng, J., Brocious, J., Fishman, D. A., Huang, F., Li, X., Tamma, V. A., … & Potma, E. O. (2014). Gradient and scattering forces in photoinduced force microscopy. Physical Review B, 90(15), 155417.

  3. Jahng, J., Fishman, D. A., Park, S., Nowak, D. B., Morrison, W. A., Wickramasinghe, H. K., & Potma, E. O. (2015). Linear and nonlinear optical spectroscopy at the nanoscale with photoinduced force microscopy. Accounts of chemical research, 48(10), 2671-2679.

  4. Yamane, H., Yamanishi, J., Yokoshi, N., Sugawara, Y., & Ishihara, H. (2020). Theoretical analysis of optically selective imaging in photoinduced force microscopy. Optics Express, 28(23), 34787-34803.

  5. Almajhadi, M., & Wickramasinghe, H. K. (2017). Contrast and imaging performance in photo induced force microscopy. Optics Express, 25(22), 26923-26938.

  6. Fu, D., Park, K., Delen, G., Attila, Ö., Meirer, F., Nowak, D., … & Weckhuysen, B. M. (2017). Nanoscale infrared imaging of zeolites using photoinduced force microscopy. Chemical Communications, 53(97), 13012-13014.

  7. Tumkur, T. U., Yang, X., Cerjan, B., Halas, N. J., Nordlander, P., & Thomann, I. (2016). Photoinduced force mapping of plasmonic nanostructures. Nano letters, 16(12), 7942-7949.

  8. O’Callahan, B. T., Yan, J., Menges, F., Muller, E. A., & Raschke, M. B. (2018). Photoinduced tip–sample forces for chemical nanoimaging and spectroscopy. Nano letters, 18(9), 5499-5505.

  9. Abrego-Martinez, J. C., Jafari, M., Chergui, S., Pavel, C., Che, D., & Siaj, M. (2022). Aptamer-based electrochemical biosensor for rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2: Nanoscale electrode-aptamer-SARS-CoV-2 imaging by photo-induced force microscopy. Biosensors and Bioelectronics, 195, 113595.

  10. Delen, G., Monai, M., Meirer, F., & Weckhuysen, B. M. (2021). In situ nanoscale infrared spectroscopy of water adsorption on nanoislands of surface‐anchored metal‐organic frameworks. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 60(3), 1620-1624.

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