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Conductive Atomic Force Microscopy

Conductive Atomic Force Microscopy (C-AFM) is a mode of atomic force microscopy in which a conductive tip is scanned in contact with the sample surface, while a voltage is applied between the tip and the sample, generating a current image. At the same time, a topographic image is also generated. Both, the current and the topographic images are taken from the same area of the sample, which allows the identification of features on the surface conducting more or less current. An electric circuit, with current amplifiers and filters, monitors the current, which can vary from a few pA up to 500 nA.

After acquiring a topographic image, the tip may be moved to a specific desired location. The voltage is then ramped while the current is measured to generate local current versus voltage (I-V) curves.

Several kinds of conductive tips can be used in C-AFM, but the most successful are the conductive diamond-coated silicon tips. Besides having a good conductivity, the diamond layer is resistant to wear. The main advantage of C-AFM over standard electrical measurement techniques is the high spatial resolution. For example, C-AFM measurements on polycrystalline thin films have been able to identify differences in the conductivity between grain boundaries and the interior of the grains. Also, C-AFM has been shown to be suitable to identify conducting paths in solar cells and to locate microshunts.

Examples of Conductive Atomic Force Microscopy Capabilities

Top: High-resolution image of a sample semiconductor device; the image shows white puff-like clusters on a dark background and was obtained using atomic force microscopy. Bottom: High-resolution image of the same semiconductor device sample as above, but obtained using conductive atomic force microscopy, in which a voltage is applied between a conductive tip and the sample surface to measure electric current; the image shows distinct gray areas of large grain clusters outlined in white. AFM (top) and C-AFM (bottom) images of a CdTe/CdS/SnO2/glass sample after bromine/methanol etch. One electric contact is placed on the SnO2 while the other contact is provided by the tip in contact with the CdTe. Bright regions means higher current. Notice the enhanced conductivity at grain boundaries.
High-resolution image of a sample semiconductor device; the image was obtained using atomic force microscopy and appears as three vertical areas of slightly striated material in shades of white and gray. High-resolution image of the same sample semiconductor device as at left; the image was obtained using conductive atomic force microscopy and features small and large white vertical areas on a gray background.
AFM (left) and C-AFM (right) images of the cross section of a CdTe/CdS/SnO2/glass device after nitric/phosphoric acids etch and deposition of Au/Cu contact. Notice the short circuit of the device at the bottom of the C-AFM image.
Left Top: High-resolution topographic image, obtained using atomic force microscopy, of a cadmium telluride/cadmium sulfide semiconductor device sample after an etch; the image appears as indistinct rounded clusters of gray and black. Left Bottom: High-resolution current image, obtained using conductive atomic force microscopy, of the same cadmium telluride/cadmium sulfide semiconductor device as above, showing more detail in light and dark gray. Right: Linescans of current measured at different voltages for the cadmium telluride/cadmium sulfide semiconductor device sample shown at left.
Left: Topographic (top) and current (bottom) images from a CdTe/CdS sample after NP etch. The NP etch creates a conductive layer over the whole surface of the CdTe film. Right: Linescans of the current taken over the NP-etched CdTe surface under illumination and at different forward voltages. Each linescan was taken at the same location and has a length of 1 µm. The illumination produces a photocurrent that is annulled by a forward bias equal to 0.64 V, which is the Voc for the device.
Top: High-resolution image of a sample semiconductor device made of silicon and tin oxide on glass; the image was obtained using atomic force microscopy and features large, rounded white clusters on a background of smaller, darker gray clusters. Bottom: High-resolution image of the same sample semiconductor device made of silicon and tin oxide on glass shown above; this image was obtained using conductive atomic force microscopy and appears as widely separated white and light gray jagged clusters on a dark gray background. AFM (top) and C-AFM (bottom) images of Si/SnO2/glass. The Si film is composed by an amorphous matrix with some crystalline phase. Because of its higher electric conductivity, the crystalline phase is readily distinguished from the amorphous phase in the C-AFM image.

For additional information, contact Mowafak Al-Jassim, 303-384-6602.