This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project will develop high resolution thermal probes with sharp tips, integrated with highly sensitive thermal sensing elements that are capable of achieving very high lateral thermal resolution (< 20 nm) for scanning thermal microscopy. These tips will be used in various applications, such as mapping thermal effects on recording heads, for applications involving recording technologies which utilize integrated laser pulsing, and for thermal mapping of small soft and/or self-assembled structures. Thermal mapping with 20 nm resolution will create paradigm shifts in mapping molecular self-assembly and soft materials. The core intellectual merits include the creation of thermal sensor nanofabrication processes using scalable semiconductor processing techniques to minimize the cost of manufacturing and ensure repeatability and reproducibility. The probe will be designed to maximize the heat flow from the sample to the sharp probe and to minimize the background heat flow from the sample to the cantilever to achieve high spatial resolution. The position, size, and material of the sensing element will be designed to achieve high sensitivity.

The broader impact/commercial potential of this project will be a new suite of products which will replace current thermal probe solutions and significantly increase the market potential of nano-thermal products. These new products will have significant impacts in industries such as semiconductors and magnetic recording, and will impact the emerging field of nanotechnology. The innovation will significantly help generate new research and applications in areas that are not currently being addressed. New efforts to integrate nanoelectronics with biomolecular self-assembled structures will be aided by the ability to map thermal conductivity and temperature with high resolution. Moreover, the measurement of thermal properties with high spatial resolution and sensitivity is a significant challenge but increasingly needed for process monitoring, material characterization, and failure analysis in the semiconductor and data storage industries, as well as for scientific research in nanotechnology.

Project Report

The purpose of this project is to develop a new type of probe for atomic force microscopy (AFM). In traditional AFM, a cantilever with a sharp tip (the probe) is scanned over a sample with nanometer precision. As the probe moves across the sample, the height of the probe is adjusted based on the sample’s topography. A computer records the probe height and uses those measurements to construct an image of the surface. In this project, we created a probe that, in addition to measuring topography, can simultaneously sense small thermal variations. The probe consists of a sharp tip with an integrated temperature sensing element. As the probe is scanned over a sample, heat transfer from the sample changes the temperature of the probe. A computer records the temperature and uses those data points to generate a thermal image. We designed several novel thermal probes with different geometries, dimensions, and materials. The latest generation probe has demonstrated unprecedented thermal resolution and is expected to have even greater sensitivity as we move forward into the next phase of the project. The commercialization of the probe will have an impact in the semiconductor and electronic data storage industries and, in general, the emerging field of nanotechnology. The probes will be manufactured using batch processes allowing us to create many probes at once with nearly identical performance characteristics. The fabrication process has been optimized to significantly reduce to the cost of the probes. As a result, the probes will be more affordable enabling the possibility of widespread adoption and maximizing the potential impact of the technology.

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Applied Nanostructures, Inc.
Santa Clara
United States
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