Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Scanning Tunneling Microscopy: Unveiling the Nano World

In the realm of nanotechnology, where the manipulation and observation of matter occur at the atomic and molecular scale, Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) stands as an indispensable tool. Developed in the early 1980s by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for their groundbreaking work, STM has since revolutionized our ability to explore and understand the nanoscale world. This article by Academic Block looks into the principles, techniques, and applications of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy.

The Birth of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

The story of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy begins with the pioneering work of Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for their invention. Born out of the need to investigate surface structures at the atomic level, STM marked a paradigm shift in microscopy. Unlike traditional optical microscopes that relied on visible light, the STM operates on the principles of quantum tunneling, a phenomenon rooted in quantum mechanics.

Principles of Quantum Tunneling

Quantum tunneling is a quantum mechanical phenomenon where particles, such as electrons, can pass through potential barriers that would be insurmountable in classical physics. In the context of STM, a sharp metal tip is brought in close proximity to a sample surface. When a small bias voltage is applied between the tip and the sample, electrons can “tunnel” through the vacuum gap between them, creating a measurable tunneling current.

Instrumentation of STM

Tip and Sample

The heart of the STM lies in its probe – a sharp metallic tip that terminates in a single atom. Typically made of tungsten or platinum-iridium, the tip is crucial for achieving high spatial resolution. The sample, usually a conductive material, is mounted on a piezoelectric scanner that allows precise movement in the x, y, and z directions.

Piezoelectric Scanning

The piezoelectric effect involves the generation of an electric charge in response to mechanical stress. In an STM, piezoelectric elements are employed to precisely position the tip in relation to the sample surface. By applying voltages to the piezoelectric scanners, the tip can be moved with angstrom-level precision, enabling the scanning of the sample surface.

Feedback Mechanism

Maintaining a constant tunneling current is crucial for high-resolution imaging. A feedback loop is employed to adjust the tip-sample distance based on the tunneling current. As the tip scans the surface, variations in height are detected, and the piezoelectric scanners adjust the tip position to maintain a constant current, resulting in a topographic map of the sample.

Achieving Unprecedented Resolution

The defining feature of STM is its exceptional spatial resolution. Traditional optical microscopes are limited by the wavelength of visible light, restricting them to resolutions on the order of hundreds of nanometers. In contrast, STM can achieve resolutions on the atomic scale, down to fractions of a nanometer.

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM)

While STM excels in imaging conductive materials, its application is limited to surfaces that conduct electricity. To overcome this limitation, Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) was developed. AFM uses a sharp tip at the end of a flexible cantilever to “feel” the surface, measuring the forces between the tip and the sample. This allows imaging of non-conductive materials with atomic precision.

Mathematical equations behind the Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

The mathematical description of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) involves the principles of quantum mechanics and tunneling theory. The key equation that governs the tunneling current in STM is based on the probability of electrons tunneling through a potential barrier. The basic expression for the tunneling current (I) in STM can be given by the following formula:

I ∝ exp⁡ [(−2d sqrt(2mϕ) / ℏ) ];

Here, the symbols represent the following:

  • I is the tunneling current.

  • d is the distance between the tip and the sample (tunneling gap).

  • m is the effective mass of the tunneling electrons.

  • ϕ is the work function difference between the tip and the sample.

  • is the reduced Planck’s constant.

The tunneling current is exponentially dependent on the tunneling gap distance and the work function difference. This equation emphasizes the quantum mechanical nature of tunneling, where electrons have a probability of overcoming the potential barrier between the tip and the sample.

In practice, to maintain a constant current during scanning and obtain topographic information, the tip-sample distance (d) is adjusted using a feedback mechanism. The feedback system continuously monitors the tunneling current and adjusts the tip height to keep the current constant, allowing the creation of a topographic map of the sample surface.

Applications of STM

Surface Science

STM has become an indispensable tool in surface science, allowing researchers to study the arrangement of atoms on surfaces. Surface properties play a crucial role in catalysis, adhesion, and other chemical processes, making STM an invaluable tool for understanding and manipulating these processes at the atomic level.


The ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules has profound implications for nanotechnology. STM has been instrumental in the development of nanoscale devices and structures, paving the way for innovations in electronics, materials science, and medicine.

Biological Applications

In addition to its impact on the physical sciences, STM has found applications in biology. Researchers have used STM to visualize and manipulate biological molecules, providing insights into the structure and behavior of proteins, DNA, and other biomolecules at the nanoscale.

Challenges and Innovations

While STM has revolutionized nanoscale imaging, it is not without its challenges. One major limitation is its requirement for a conductive sample. Innovations such as non-contact AFM and dynamic STM have been developed to address this limitation, expanding the scope of STM to a wider range of materials.

Non-contact AFM

Non-contact AFM operates by measuring the forces between the tip and the sample without making physical contact. This allows imaging of insulating materials and biological samples without causing damage. Non-contact AFM has become a valuable tool in exploring the nanoworld of soft and delicate materials.

Dynamic STM

Dynamic STM, also known as frequency-modulation STM, operates by monitoring the frequency shift of the tunneling current. This technique is less sensitive to the electronic properties of the sample, making it suitable for a broader range of materials. Dynamic STM has been applied in studies of semiconductors, insulators, and other non-conductive materials.

Future Prospects

As technology continues to advance, so do the capabilities of scanning tunneling microscopy. Emerging techniques, such as spin-polarized STM and time-resolved STM, promise to unveil new dimensions of the nanoworld. Spin-polarized STM allows the investigation of the spin properties of electrons, while time-resolved STM enables the study of dynamic processes at the atomic scale.

Final Words

In this article by Academic Block we have seen that, scanning Tunneling Microscopy stands as a testament to human ingenuity and our relentless pursuit of understanding the fundamental building blocks of the universe. From the early days of tunneling electrons to the current era of atomic manipulation, STM has played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of nanoscience and nanotechnology. In this article by Academic Block we have seen that, as we stand at the cusp of a new frontier, the continued development of STM and its offshoots promises to unravel the mysteries of the nanoworld, offering unprecedented opportunities for scientific discovery and technological innovation. Please provide your views on this article in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

Academic References on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

  1. Binnig, G., & Rohrer, H. (1983). Scanning tunneling microscopy. Surface science, 126(1-3), 236-244.

  2. Hansma, P. K., & Tersoff, J. (1987). Scanning tunneling microscopy. Journal of Applied Physics, 61(2), R1-R24.

  3. Binnig, G., & Rohrer, H. (2000). Scanning tunneling microscopy. IBM Journal of research and development, 44(1/2), 279.

  4. Stroscio, J. A., & Kaiser, W. J. (1993). Scanning tunneling microscopy (Vol. 27). Academic press.

  5. Hansma, P. K., Elings, V. B., Marti, O., & Bracker, C. E. (1988). Scanning tunneling microscopy and atomic force microscopy: application to biology and technology. Science, 242(4876), 209-216.

  6. Chen, C. J. (2021). Introduction to Scanning Tunneling Microscopy Third Edition (Vol. 69). Oxford University Press, USA.

  7. Bai, C. (2000). Scanning tunneling microscopy and its application (Vol. 32). Springer Science & Business Media.

  8. Binnig, G., & Rohrer, H. (1987). Scanning tunneling microscopy—from birth to adolescence. reviews of modern physics, 59(3), 615.

  9. Binnig, G., Rohrer, H., Gerber, C., & Weibel, E. (1982). Surface studies by scanning tunneling microscopy. Physical review letters, 49(1), 57.

  10. Tersoff, J., & Hamann, D. R. (1985). Theory of the scanning tunneling microscope. Physical Review B, 31(2), 805.

Key figures in Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer are commonly considered as a key figures of STM. They developed STM in the early 1980s while working at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory. For their pioneering work on STM, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986, acknowledging the significance of their contribution to the field of nanotechnology. Their invention of STM opened up new possibilities for imaging and manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular levels, revolutionizing the way scientists and researchers explore the nanoscale world.

Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Hardware and software required for Scanning Tunneling Microscopy


  1. STM Instrument: This is the core hardware component and includes the scanning mechanism, tunneling current detection system, and feedback control system. The instrument is designed to move a sharp metallic tip in close proximity to a sample, detect the tunneling current, and maintain a constant current during scanning.

  2. Piezoelectric Scanners: Piezoelectric materials are used to control the movement of the tip in all three dimensions with high precision. These scanners enable the fine adjustments of the tip position needed for topographic imaging.

  3. Tip and Sample Holder: The tip, usually made of a conductive material like tungsten or platinum, is crucial for the tunneling process. The sample holder should be compatible with conductive or semiconductive materials.

  4. Vibration Isolation System: STM is highly sensitive to vibrations, so an effective vibration isolation system is necessary to minimize external disturbances and ensure the stability of measurements.

  5. Electronics: Amplifiers, filters, and other electronic components are required for signal processing. These components help amplify and condition the tunneling current signal for accurate detection.

  6. High-Resolution Positioning System: For precise control over the tip-sample distance, a high-resolution positioning system is necessary. This can involve advanced mechanical systems or additional piezoelectric elements.


  1. Control and Data Acquisition Software: This software controls the movement of the tip, collects data from the tunneling current, and manages the feedback loop to maintain a constant current. It is responsible for the overall operation of the STM system.

  2. Image Processing Software: Software for processing and analyzing the data collected during scanning. It helps convert raw data into visual representations, such as topographic images of the sample surface.

  3. Data Analysis and Simulation Tools: To interpret the acquired data, researchers use various analysis tools and software. This may include software for simulating theoretical STM images based on the electronic structure of the sample.

  4. Feedback Control Algorithms: Algorithms that govern the feedback loop to adjust the tip-sample distance. These algorithms ensure the stability of the tunneling current and enable accurate topographic imaging.

  5. Instrument Control Interface: An interface that allows users to interact with and control the STM instrument. This interface may include options for setting scanning parameters, adjusting imaging modes, and configuring experimental conditions.

  6. Simulation and Modeling Software: For theoretical studies and simulations related to STM data, software tools that model the behavior of electrons during tunneling and simulate STM images are valuable.

Facts on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Invention and Nobel Prize: Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) was invented by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory in 1981. Their groundbreaking work on STM earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986.

Principle of Tunneling: The functioning of STM is based on the quantum mechanical phenomenon of tunneling. Electrons can pass through a potential barrier even if they do not have sufficient energy to overcome it, resulting in a measurable tunneling current.

Atomic Resolution: STM has the capability to achieve atomic resolution, allowing researchers to visualize individual atoms on surfaces. This has revolutionized the study of materials at the nanoscale.

Tip-Sample Interaction: The sharp metallic tip of the STM is brought very close to the sample surface (typically within a few angstroms). The tunneling current is highly sensitive to the tip-sample distance, and this distance is precisely controlled during scanning.

Feedback Mechanism: STM utilizes a feedback mechanism to maintain a constant tunneling current during scanning. Changes in the tip-sample distance are continuously adjusted to keep the tunneling current constant, resulting in topographic information.

Piezoelectric Control: Piezoelectric materials are commonly used in the construction of STM for precise control of the tip position. These materials change shape in response to applied voltage, allowing for fine adjustments of the tip-sample distance.

Quantum Corrals: Scientists have used STM to create “quantum corrals,” circular arrangements of atoms that confine electrons within them. This phenomenon demonstrates quantum confinement effects and highlights the precision with which STM can manipulate matter at the atomic scale.

Manipulation of Individual Atoms: STM allows researchers to manipulate individual atoms and molecules on a surface. This capability has implications for nanotechnology, enabling the construction of nanostructures with precision.

Versatility in Material Studies: STM is versatile and can be used to study a wide range of materials, including metals, semiconductors, insulators, and even biological molecules.

Vibrational Spectroscopy: Beyond imaging, STM can be used for vibrational spectroscopy. By measuring the changes in tunneling current as a function of tip-sample distance, researchers can gain insights into the vibrational properties of molecules.

Real-Time Imaging: STM allows for real-time imaging of dynamic processes at the atomic and molecular scale. This capability has been crucial in studying reactions on surfaces and understanding dynamic behavior in nanoscale systems.

High Vacuum Environment: STM typically operates in a high vacuum environment to minimize interference from air molecules, ensuring the stability and accuracy of measurements.

Limitations: While STM is a powerful tool, it has limitations. It primarily works on conductive or semiconductive surfaces, and non-conductive samples may require special preparations. Additionally, the high sensitivity to vibrations necessitates careful isolation of the instrument.

Instrumentation Advances: Advances in STM instrumentation have led to the development of variants such as Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), which extends the capabilities to non-conductive samples and allows for imaging surfaces in three dimensions.

Key Discoveries made using Scanning Tunneling Microscopy

Visualization of Atoms: One of the earliest and most significant achievements of STM was the visualization of individual atoms on surfaces. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the inventors of STM, demonstrated this capability in 1981. This ability to directly image individual atoms opened up new possibilities for studying the structure of materials at the atomic scale.

Discovery of Fullerenes: In 1985, STM played a crucial role in the discovery of fullerenes, a class of carbon molecules with a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube structure. Researchers were able to visualize and manipulate individual carbon atoms to form these unique structures, leading to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of fullerenes.

Manipulation of Atoms and Molecules: STM allows scientists to manipulate individual atoms and molecules with remarkable precision. Researchers have used STM to pick up and move atoms, create atomic-scale structures, and even assemble nanostructures. This capability has implications for nanotechnology and the development of new materials.

Quantum Corrals: In the 1990s, researchers created “quantum corrals” using STM. These are circular arrangements of atoms that confine electrons within them, demonstrating quantum confinement effects. The ability to engineer such structures opened avenues for studying quantum phenomena at the nanoscale.

Identification of Single Molecules: STM has been employed to identify and study individual molecules on surfaces. This has applications in fields such as chemistry and biology, enabling the investigation of molecular structures and interactions at the atomic level.

Atomic-Scale Imaging of Surfaces: STM has provided detailed images of surfaces at the atomic scale, allowing scientists to study surface structures, defects, and the arrangement of atoms. This has implications for understanding material properties and catalysis.

Study of Superconductivity: STM has been used to investigate the electronic properties of superconductors at the atomic level. Researchers have gained insights into the mechanisms underlying superconductivity, contributing to the development of high-temperature superconductors.

Observation of Single Electron Charge: STM has been employed to observe the charging and discharging of individual atoms and molecules, providing insights into electronic transport properties at the nanoscale.

Advancements in Nanoelectronics: STM has contributed to the development of nanoelectronic devices by enabling the precise positioning of individual atoms and the study of electronic transport in nanoscale systems.

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